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With fall right around the corner, adults everywhere are looking forward to pumpkin spice, crisp leaves, a chill in the air, and cool-weather accessories. Children are looking forward to sweets, spooky stories, and carving pumpkins. The origin of pumpkin carving is not common knowledge, but each year, parents load up the family in the car and head to local pumpkin patches to find the perfect one for the fall holidays. Set apart from this tradition’s origins, this pumpkin will be used as decoration, and children cannot wait to dig into the messy fun.
Have you ever wondered where this strange tradition of wasting a perfectly good pumpkin came from? Is it truly a waste? Is it just for fun? Keep reading to quell your curiosity and discover the origin of pumpkin carving.
Origin Of Pumpkin Carving: It Wasn’t Always Pumpkins
The origin of pumpkin carving takes us all the way back to the Emerald Isle, but it was not pumpkins the Irish carved, it was turnips! This was because, well, pumpkins did not exist in Ireland. In ancient times, on All Hallow’s Eve, Celtic people would carve out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets, and place a small flame inside to ward off evil spirits.
In the 1800’s, the Irish began to immigrate to the United States in hopes of a better life in this land of plenty. Unfortunately, they were not welcomed with open arms, and the evidence of ‘evil spirits’ was clear. Thankfully, the Irish people persisted, and carried on with their traditions in their new homes. Once these people discovered how easy it was to carve pumpkins, instead of the more difficult root vegetables of their homeland, pumpkins became popular carving choices for All Hallow’s Eve.
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As the years went on, people got more and more creative in their carvings, creating beautiful scenery and even portraits in this large vegetable! However the origin of pumpkin carving was not simply hollowing out a vegetable and lighting it up, but carving faces into the plant was a practice that had existed for centuries.
The light inside of the vegetable represented the spirits of loved ones who had passed, or otherwise “friendly” spirits, in order to keep the evil spirits at bay. The faces were intended to do even more scaring away, and could appear quite fearsome when viewed from a distance on a dark, Irish road.
In 1820, Washington Irving added to the fearsome idea of a carved pumpkin when he made it the head of the Headless Horseman in his short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Even more terrifying is the ending, where Ichabod Crane’s headless body is found next to a jack-o-lantern of his own. Creepy? Yes. True? No.
The name Jack-O-Lantern has many different origin tales, but they all follow the same rough pattern. A thief, named Jack, is being chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen. He meets the Devil on the road, and makes a deal with him, so the Devil promises he will never steal his soul. Years later, Jack dies, but he is turned away from the pearly gates. When he arrives at the doors of hell, the Devil remains true to his word, and does not take Jack’s soul. Terrified of wandering the earth for all eternity with no place to go, he asks the Devil what he should do. The Devil, mocking him, throws him a burning ember to light his way. Jack carves out a turnip and places the coal inside of it, and wanders the earth for all eternity with his glowing turnip, searching for his final resting place. Creepy? Yes. True? Probably not.
Ancient Traditions With A Modern Twist
Modern celebrations of this ancient tradition have created a culture that is nearly unrecognizable to the ancient carvings. Far different from the intention of protecting against evil, today’s Jack-O-Lanterns are done as a way to entertain families and decorate front porches. People all over the world participate in contests, with each person trying to create a more ornate design than the next.
Carving pumpkins is for everyone, meaning that it is a fun and versatile activity that can range from adults-only, or kid-friendly. But whatever your reason for laying out the newspaper and scooping out the goop, carving pumpkins is a surefire way of entertaining family members of all ages this fall. And, if you would like to get back to the origins of pumpkin carving, pick up a few turnips at the grocery store and try your hand at living like the ancient Celtics. Just be sure you don’t run into old Jack.
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