Many Americans are surprised when they learn the jack-o'-lanterns are actually a British tradition. And this fact is borne out by the fact that each year London's legendary store, Fortnum & Mason, holds a pumpkin carving contest.
But the story doesn't start there. Back in the mists of pre-Christian days, the Celts of Scotland and Ireland repeatedly told each other the story of Stingy Jack.
Now Stingy Jack was always playing tricks on everyone, including the Devil himself. Once he tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree on the pretense that the Devil should prove he did not fear this controversial fruit of self knowledge from the Garden of Eden.
Jack then hurriedly placed crosses all around the tree and made the Devil promise not to take his soul when he died as the term of releasing him from the hostage tree.
When Jack finally did die, he was, of course, denied entrance into Heaven because of his many mean deeds. He also found, because of his bargain with the Devil, he was not welcome in Hell either.
The Devil, still resenting the trick Jack had played on him, condemned Jack to roam the earth at night without friends or comfort. But the Devil, who was once an angel, was not without sympathy for the errors of humanity, so he tossed Jack a hot coal from the eternal fires of Hell to light his path on the darkened earth.
Jack’s soul fell back to earth, without form. At first Jack tried to enter homes but he only scared people. Then one lonely night, he remembered that he had once carved turnips and gourds into scary faces and hung them from trees to frighten people in the night.
Jack found an old one he had once made still hanging from a tree and there he put his coal and soul, far from the freighted villagers.
Knowing a good thing when they saw it, for no village wants lost souls wandering about at night, the local folk carved and hung more turnips and gourds 'lanterns' in the other trees - just in case there were any other additional spirits needing a welcoming home.
And these lanterns, came in time to be called “Jack o’ Lanterns” after, you guessed it, Stingy Jack himself.
Scottish and Irish immigrants brought this custom of carving a turnips and gourds to the United States along with many other lovely customs (such as whisky/whiskey).
But when they saw the gigantic pumpkins offered for sale in America’s rural farmers’ market – well, who wants to carve a little turnip when a huge pumpkin would be so much easier.
The early American writer Washington Irving combined all the bi-continental story elements, added a touch of Dutch New Amsterdam, and created the unforgettable tale of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – complete with flaming pumpkin heads and lost souls in the night.
Today, Halloween wouldn’t be Halloween in either the U.S. or Britain without pumpkins. So, whether you carve or bake, be kind, be generous or Stingy Jack just might visit you!
Post Note: Oct 20, 2012: It seems a love for pumpkins is now going international because Burger King outlets in Japan are offering the BK Pumpkin Burger and the Pumpkin Bomb Burger from October 26 through November 11 this year.
Both burgers come with beef patties, fried kabocha pumpkin slices, bacon (is the combination of 'bacon and pumpkin' to be our newest food fab?), and, of course, lettuce. They're topped with a nut sauce made from sesame seeds, peanuts, almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts. Oh, yes, they do come with pumpkin fries for those in the true 'spirit' of the season.
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2012