Ubiquitous as you wander the roads and paths of October country are pumpkins. October means pumpkins. All pumpkins are actually a winter squash belonging to the genus Curcurbita. Curcurbita pepo is one of the oldest, if not the oldest domesticated species. In Oaxaca in southern Mexico it has been found dating to 8,000-10,000 years ago and and in Ocampo, Tamaulipas about 7,000 years ago. Its ancient territory extended north through Texas and up the Mississippi River valley into Illinois. It grew easy into Florida and appeared in Missouri at least 4,000 years ago.
Europeans first encountered pumpkins as far back as 1584, when French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence river area reported finding “gros melons.” The Greek word for “large melon” is “pepon” and pepon then became “pompon” in French. The English changed “pompon” to “pumpion” as it is found in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. In America it was transformed by the early colonists into the modern “pumpkin.” They also embellished its preparation. The Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin to store for the winter and also roasted and age them plain. But the colonists sliced off the top, scooped out the seeds, filled the insides with milk, spices and honey and then baked it in hot ashes. This was the ancestor of pumpkin pie.
People have been making jack-o-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice came from an old Irish legend about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack” and how he tricked the devil and the devil got his back. Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him but in true form convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks, so he would not be the one paying. Jack then kept the coin next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack later extracted a promise that the devil would leave him alone for a year if he were freed from his coin prison. Jack further got a promise that should he die, the devil would not come for his soul. The next year, when the devil came back, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit and then carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down. Jack this time insured another ten years of peace. But then Jack died. Rejected by heaven for the rotter he was, he went down to hell, at which point the devil finally had the upper hand. Angry with Jack for making him look the fool he kept to the letter of the word on his promise and refused to take him in. Instead, he sent Jack packing into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack carved out a turnip to hold the coal and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since.
The Irish began to call to this wandering figure “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, “Jack O’Lantern.” In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away wandering evil spirits, including old Jack.. In England, large beets were used. While as you can see at right the result is quite spooky, if you have ever tried to carve one of these vegetables you will understand why immigrants to the United States, on discovering the pumpkin, made he switch. Even this took a while though. Not until 1837, does jack-o’-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern and the carved pumpkin lantern association with Halloween was not first recorded until 1866.
Pumpkins also find their way into books and movies. Pumpkin juice is mentioned on a number of occasions in the Harry Potter series and even has magical properties in R. L; Stine’s story “Pumpkin Juice. And in the Potter films Hagrid’s pumpkin patch often figures. Long before J. K. Rowling, American author Washington Irving’s headless horseman terrorized Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by hurling a pumpkin at him. In the Oz books of L. Frank Baum a jack o’lantern head tops the stick and branch body of the character Jack Pumpkinhead and in Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series a handyman figure named Merv Pumpkinhead, obviously modeled on Jack, works for Morpheus in the Dreaming, painting and building dreams. Three quite different authors from different eras all seemed to find the pumpkin an inspiration. In Tim Burton’s animated film The Nightmare Before Christmas, the main character Jack Skellington, of Halloween town, is known as “The Pumpkin King”.