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The Pumpkin: Gourd of Gourds and King of All Things Halloween
by Marjorie Dorfman

Why is the pumpkin always associated with Halloween? When and where did that custom originate? Why is it also called a Jack 0’ Lantern? These and other colorful questions will be addressed below. Read on, no matter how you may feel about the color orange.

The pumpkin has a noble history, dating as far back as 7,000 years to 5500 BC. Seeds from related plants have been found among the ruins in ancient Mexico, and Native American Indians used pumpkin as a diet staple centuries before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. The early settlers soon followed suit and began eating it as well. They even transported seeds back to their European homeland, where they quickly became popular. Pumpkins were versatile, and colonists used them in a wide variety of recipes, ranging from desserts to stews and soups. They made pumpkin pie by filling a hollowed out shell with milk, honey and spices, and then baking it. They also made mats by drying the pumpkin shells and cutting them into strips.

A pumpkin is also a squash even though, alas, a squash is not always a pumpkin. It is a member of the Cucurbita family, which includes squash and cucumbers. This mysterious gourd has held our fascination for many years and is grown all over the world, even Alaska. The only place its happy orange face is never seen is Antarctica (where there’s not much else to see anyway). The pumpkin is rich in Vitamin A and potassium, and also high in fiber. Medically, it was once prescribed as a cure for freckles and as a remedy for snake bites and prostate cancer. (It was not used however, to cure snakes cursed with either freckles or prostate cancer.)

Pumpkins are associated with two American holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving. It is not known if they were actually a part of the first Thanksgiving meal shared by the Pilgrims and the Indians or whether it was the second celebration the following year. It is a fact, however, that from then on, pumpkins have been an important feature of the Thanksgiving feast. Its connection with Halloween has Celtic roots as it was the Irish who brought the tradition of the Jack 0’Lantern to America. The original, however, was a turnip and not a pumpkin. But I digress.

The legend from the green land of Erin dates back hundreds of years. It weaves the tale of a man known as Stingy Jack. He was, by all accounts, a miserable old drunk who enjoyed playing tricks on everyone, including the devil himself. One day, he tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree, after which he carved crosses around the tree’s trunk. The devil was then unable to descend and Stingy Jack offered to help him only on the condition that he promise not to take his soul when he died. Promise granted, the devil escaped and continued his wave of malice to this day, tugging us all between the shores of the deep blue sea.

As the story goes, many years later, when Jack finally died, he went to the pearly gates of heaven, where he was informed by St. Peter that he could not enter because of the mean and miserable way he conducted his life on earth. He was sent between heaven and hell where it was dark and not so nice, doomed to wander eternally. He asked the devil how he could possibly find his way out since it was so dark and, it is said, the devil then tossed him an ember from the flames of hell to help him light his way. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, one of his favorite foods and an item he often stole and carried with him. From that day onward, Stingy Jack roams the earth without respite, lighting his way as he goes with the glow proffered by his "Jack O’Lantern."

On All Hallow’s Eve, the Irish hollowed out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and even beets to honor the legend. (There were no pumpkins in Ireland.) They placed a light inside to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away from their doorsteps. With the wave of Irish immigration to America’s shores after the Potato Famine of 1848, these Jack 0’Lanterns were supplanted by pumpkins, which were bigger and easier to carve out.

Pumpkins have found their way into American culture in other unexpected ways. Many movies have been made with pumpkin and Halloween themes, or at least settings. Most innocuous, perhaps, is the pumpkin chariot in the Disney fantasy, Cinderella. Not to be reckoned with or forgotten however, is the cinematic lunatic, Michael Meyers, who peeks inside the pumpkin-filled windows of Main Street USA looking for things besides salad to chop with his long sharp knife.

And so the next time you pass a house decorated for Halloween with a glowing Jack 0’Lantern in the window, smile, walk softly and carry no stick at all. Give a thought to Stingy Jack, whose legacy surely lives somewhere within its smiling matrix. He’s no problem though. It’s Michael Meyers you should watch out for. I hear from sources one cannot ignore that he’s never really been very fond of the color orange.

Most of all, have a happy and a decadent Halloween.

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