As my kids sit out on the front porch carving their latest pumpkin pick of the Halloween season, I couldn’t help but wonder where this strange tradition of carving pumpkins comes from? So I thought of skimming the pages of history through our trusted advisor – the Google. And boy, was I in for quite a spooky surprise!
CHRISTIAN & CELTIC ORIGINS OF HALLOWEEN
So, first and foremost, let’s talk about Halloween. You probably won’t be surprised to find that Halloween, like many other American holidays, began as a religious celebration that evolved into a secular one over time (about a thousand years, actually). The Celtic festival of Samhain, which took place on November 1st, is the origin of Halloween. People believed that on Samhain, the souls of the dead returned to their homes, so they dressed up and lit fires to fend off evil spirits.
Later, in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III shifted All Saints Day from November 1st to November 1st (possibly as a Christian substitute for the pagan celebration), and the day before became known as “All Hallows Eve,” or, Halloween, as we now call it. The celebration extended from Ireland and the United Kingdom to France and even the new American colonies, absorbing local customs and traditions along the way. One such practice comes from the Irish and Scottish tradition of “guising,” in which a person dressed in a costume would perform a trick in exchange for a treat… I’m sure you can guess what the modern equivalent is.
MYTHOLOGY BEHIND HALLOWEEN
Coming back to the odd custom of carving pumpkins. Stingy Jack, the first Jack-o’-Lantern, wasn’t a pumpkin at all. As the mythology goes, he in fact was a guy who invited the Devil out for a drink and then fooled him into paying for it.
(It’s quite fair to claim that the Devil should’ve known better) Jack (the brave one – as we should address him) managed to con the Devil yet again, dies, and is subsequently banned from both Heaven and Hell with only a burning bit of coal set inside of a carved turnip to lead him. A TURNIP??!! We can only speculate about the various why’s in this mythology.
The Irish gave this roving ghoul, the moniker…Jack of the Lantern, which subsequently became Jack O’Lantern, and 19th-century Irish and Scottish people began carving frightful faces onto turnips, potatoes, and “mangelwurzels” to keep him away from their houses. Irish immigrants brought the ritual to America, where they discovered that native pumpkins were ideal for the job as mangelwurzels were not commonly available in the US.
HALLOWEEN AROUND THE WORLD
Frankly I am more fascinated with the word “Mangelwurzel” itself. It somehow gives me a Harry Potterish feel. If you do not know what it looks like, below is a picture for your reference. For those curious to learn more about this interesting looking root vegetable, click here and here.
As I set out to our local grocery store in search of my very own “Mangelwurzel” to carve this Halloween, I am also hoping that Stingy Jack’s story may inspire us all to jazz up our carving game. In addition to teaching us a few valuable skills like paying for your own drink (or shall we say, taking care of our needs) and not punking the devil (vices in any or all forms).
In my attempt to bring back a little history to carving vegetables & Halloween, I managed to get a purple yam & 9″ big green daikon from the local grocery store that may pass as Mangelwurzel, shown below.
Halloween is growing in popularity even in countries with little to no Christian roots. It is based on its powerful influence in North American pop culture, not on any religious ties. The costumes too, have shifted away from their religious and supernatural beginnings, reflecting more on current pop culture’s global appeal. Costumes for Halloween now include anything from cartoon characters to celebrities to social commentary. In some ways, one may infer that, while Halloween once had a religious origin, it has now fully turned secular.
So, what are YOU carving this Halloween season? Please feel free to share any family traditions, folklore or comments about this unique, widely-accepted & widely loved holiday!
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