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Passion for pumpkins is uniquely American

Nov. 02, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

It's already fall again. The nights are getting longer, early mornings are definitely cooler and just a few days ago we were treated to the phenomena of small children knocking on doors chanting "Trick or treat." To my mind, this is a relatively harmless tradition and, like most homes in our small neighborhood, we duly gave out candy to the costumed tricksters as they stood in the flickering light cast by our carved pumpkins.

I was quite pleased with those pumpkins this year. For one thing, they were not visited by the mindless people who last year came in the night and smashed the children's hard work. Secondly, we all carved one and they looked effective despite me being somewhat handicapped by my sore finger. Carving them got me to wondering how the tradition started though and, as is usual, when a question strikes me I had to find out the answer.

The general consensus seems to be that this practice owes its beginnings to ancient Irish folklore. Legend has it that there was once an old Irishman who was so mean he was known as Stingy Jack. Jack loved playing tricks on people and did not mind who they were. One day, because of his evil ways, the devil came for Jack's soul but the wily old Irishman asked him for one last apple before he went and then tricked the devil into climbing a tree. Once he was up there, Jack nailed crosses to the tree to prevent him coming down again. Jack did not want to go to hell for his sins and so, before agreeing to let him go, he made the devil promise he would not have to.

When Jack eventually died, his soul went up to heaven but found he could not get in because of the sinful life he had led. Saddened, he turned around and he went to the gates of hell instead. The devil remembered the trick Jack had played on him and decided to punish him by keeping his word and not letting him into hell, either.

Poor Jack was condemned to wander in the darkness between heaven and hell forever, but the devil did condescend to throw him a fragment of hell fire to light his way and Jack, fearful of getting burned, hollowed out a small round vegetable called a turnip to put the ember in. Henceforth he was called Jack O'Lantern.

For centuries, this story was told in Irish folklore and gradually it spread to England and Scotland, where the Halloween tradition of carving scary faces into lanterns made from hollowed out vegetables grew.

The first written mention of the art of vegetable carving was in 1837, but a few years later, in the mid 19th century, the mass influx of Irish immigrants to the United States introduced the tradition here and the people adopted the bigger, easier to carve and much more readily available pumpkin, with the first reference to them being used for Halloween appearing just after the Civil War in 1866.

These days, of course, pumpkins are very big business. This season it is estimated that around one and a half billion pounds of the fruit, worth almost $200 million, will have been produced in the United States, most of it in Illinois. Much of this crop is commercially processed with only a small percentage going to stores for sale to us amateur carvers.

Trick or treat was never a big tradition in England when I was there, although I am told it is growing in popularity now, with costumes widely available in stores and some organized trick or treating and Halloween celebrations. Pumpkins were not around until recently, either, and it is only a few years ago that I saw my first one. This was probably because the ancient art of carving vegetables seems to have died out; certainly we never did it when I was a kid and I did not see it done until I came here. There were definitely no pumpkin festivals such as that held in Milton, although I am told there are now one or two competitions to see who can grow the biggest fruit, with the record standing well over 1,000 pounds.

I also have to confess I did not taste pumpkin until about four years ago, when I was introduced to pumpkin pie for the first time. I know it is a popular dish, but I willingly admit that given a choice I would much rather carve my pumpkin than eat it. I prefer apples or cherries in my pies and the very thought of putting pumpkin juice in my coffee makes me shudder!

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.