With Halloween nearly upon us, children everywhere will be carving pumpkins into Jack O’ Lanterns that will welcome trick-or-treaters to their homes on Halloween.
Whether carving the traditional friendly faces and ghoulish grins or something a bit more unusual, creepier or laugh-out-loud funny, creating a Jack O’ Lantern is good old-fashioned fun. For many, it’s a family tradition. But there’s more to the origin than just artistic fun.
Some folks believe the first Jack O’ Lanterns were actually human skulls with candles burning inside them and that they were used ritualistically to keep evil spirits away. Nothing I’ve read indicates that there is any truth to that notion, thank goodness.
The earliest mention of a Jack O’ Lantern I was able to locate dates back to post-medieval Celtic mythology. In Cornish lore, there are five classes of fairies. One, the Cornish Piskies, went about getting wary travelers hopelessly lost and eventually led them into bogs and moors with a ghostly light townsfolk called a will o’ the wisp, or ignis fatuus (the foolish fire). There are only two named Piskies, Joan the Wad and Jack O’ Lantern.
There is a centuries-old tradition of making lanterns from seasonal fruit, flowers and plants arranged around a candle, so as to cause strange shadows. They are known as fairy lanterns and were used to call fairies so they might be seen.
An American version of the fairy lantern first appeared in the 1800s. In this autumnal variation, leaves, nuts, fruit and flowers were placed around the candle. These fairy lanterns eventually came to be called Jack O’ Lanterns and, in time, the fruit, nuts and other adornments were removed. In their place, only a carved pumpkin remained.
In Ireland, Jack O’ Lanterns were originally made from hollowed out turnips and may have been made from beets as well. The Irish legend of the first Jack O’ Lantern began in a pub where, on a very dark All Hallows Eve night, a drunken, quick-tempered, miserable old trickster of a blacksmith named Jack found himself seated at the same table as the Devil himself. He told the Devil he was a wee bit short of cash that evening and offered up his soul if only the Devil would change into sixpence so Jack might buy one last drink.
When Jack died, in an ensuing dispute over his soul, the Devil took coal from the fires of hell and threw it at Jack, who placed it inside a turnip that he’d been eating to create a lantern that he would use to light his way as he wandered around purgatory.
Also, Irish villagers used to fear that ghosts might leave their graves on Halloween to return to their previous homes. Believing that the image of a damned soul would keep those spirits away, they created their own Lack O’ Lanterns, hollowing out turnips or beets, painting faces on or carving faces into them, and then placing lit candles inside them.
When the Irish came to the United States during the potato famine, they found that turnips were hard to come by but pumpkins were plentiful and easy to carve, so they became the new Jack O’ Lanterns.
In recent years, growing giant Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins has become the rage. But, can they be grown around here? Having the right seed makes most anything possible, although environment will affect the outcome.
Locally, Big Max and Mammoth Gold seem to be the two most popular garden varieties, although Prizewinner hybrid seed is reputed to produce Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins that are the most uniform in size, shape and color. If your goal is to grow the largest pumpkin in the world, you will want to grow the Atlantic Giant hybrid variety. Since 1979, every world champion pumpkin grown has been either directly or indirectly from Howard Dill’s patented Atlantic Giant hybrid seed.
Currently, the reigning world heavyweight champion is Ron Wallace from Greene, R.I. His colossal cucurbit claimed the world pumpkin-growing record for him at the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Mass., on Sept. 28, 2012, when his elephantine entry weighed in at 2,009 pounds, the first and, to date, the only time that anyone has grown a pumpkin weighing more than a ton.
Richard L. Gast, Extension program educator II, Horticulture, Natural Resources, Energy; agriculture programs assistant, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Franklin County, 355 West Main St., Suite 150, Malone, 12953. Call 483-7403, fax 483-6214 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.