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Oct 26

Pumpkin Day

Pumpkin Seeds
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"The Runners"
Jamie Wyeth, 1986
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"When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!"

~ James Whitcomb Riley, When the Frost is On the Punkin, 1849 - 1916

Before new world pumpkins became popular for use as jack-o-lanterns in the New World, Hallowe'en lanterns in Scotland and Britain were made out of turnips and other root vegetables, including rutabagas (swedes), beets, and even potatoes, to ward off wandering Samhain spirits! Even today in the northeast areas of France bordering Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, there is a tradition of carving lanterns from sugar beets. Small candles are placed in the beet lanterns and placed on the windowsill on November 1st, All Saints Day. This special night is known as “Nuit des Betteraves Grimaçantes” (French) or “Rommelbootzen” (German), translating to “The Night of the Grimacing Beets.” 🎃

There is a strong connection in folklore and popular culture between pumpkins and the supernatural. Famous literary examples include:

  • The folk tale of Cinderella, in which the fairy godmother turns a pumpkin into a carriage - which reverts back to its pumpkin form at midnight

  • The pumpkin hurled by the "Headless Horseman" in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne's short-story, "Feathertop",  in which a witch turns a scarecrow with a "pumpkin-head" into a man

And of course, the pumpkin is a preferred item to carve into Jack-o'-Lanterns during the Hallowe'en Season.  

However, the practice of carving jack-o'-lanterns at Hallowe'en is thought to have begun in Ireland, using turnips or mangel wurzels (a type of beet).   In the 19th century, particularly in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, these were hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces during Hallowe'en. The lanterns were variously said to represent the spirits or supernatural beings, or used to ward off evil spirits which had easier access to the the real world during this season. 

The names Jack-o'-lantern as well as Will-o'-the-Wisp are also given to the atmospheric phenomenon of the ignis fatuus (Medieval Latin for "foolish fire"), an atmospheric ghost light seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps, or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travelers from safe paths. Modern scientific explanations still vary as to the mechanisms for this phenomenon. 

But originally, the name "Jack-o'-lantern" derives from an old Irish folk tale from the mid-19th century of Stingy Jack, a lazy yet shrewd blacksmith who uses a cross to trap Satan in a tree.  In all versions of the folktale,  Jack releases Satan only after he agrees never to take Jack's soul.  However, after Jack dies, his life had been too sinful for him to go to heaven, and since Satan had promised not to take his soul, Jack is barred from hell as well.  

 

With nowhere to go, Jack is doomed to wander endlessly in the darkness and asks Satan how he will travel without anything to light his way.  Satan mockingly tosses him an ember from the flames of Hell, one which will never burn out.  Jack then carves out one of his turnips (which were his favorite food), puts the ember inside it, and begins his endless wandering of the earth, searching for a resting place.  

This tartan, designed by Carol A.L. Martin, may evoke strong memories of the colours, smells, and textures of pumpkin carving, and the seeds within.

If you are carving your own pumpkin for a jack-o'-lantern this season, you can choose to roast the seeds for a Hallowe'en snack or use them in a Hallowe'en treat recipe for Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Seed Butter Cups.

 

Click the painting of Henriette Wyeth's "Jamie's Pumpkins" (daughter of N.C. Wyeth) for the recipe.