The face caught me off guard, casting a baleful, crooked glare in my direction. I had paused, breathless, at the top of Queen Anne hill, turning to survey the city below and the trees swaying their dying mosaic of leaves. I was relishing this walk in the soft evening air when the lurid visage lurched into the corner of my eye. Turning, I stared the pumpkin. It was the first jack-o-lantern I’d seen this season, and, unaccustomed to their garish presence, it got me thinking. . .
How strange we humans are, how strange that we lop off the top of a large vegetable, scoop out the innards, and carve a face into its flesh. When you start thinking about it the whole business seems bizarre. Is it just an extreme case of our proclivity to play with our food? A relic of some ancient harvest ritual? Perhaps an extravagant marketing tactic dreamed up by the Pumpkin Growers Association of America, or some such organization, to spark demand? What could have brought us such a zany tradition?
As it turns out, jack-o-lanterns are a mongrel offspring. They are entwined with the history of Halloween, the Irish, and that usual suspect lurking around so much of western history, Catholicism.
Autumn harvest festivals are venerable, perhaps the most ancient of rituals. After all, for most of the last 10,000 years most of us have been farmers. Living at the mercy of the seasons, it seems only natural that every successful harvest induced bacchanalian celebrations, hence the age-old tradition of autumn festivities wherever crops were grown.
Into this landscape enter the Catholics. In their tireless quest to convert pagans and garner all the attention, the church established not one but two of its own holidays over this time. All Saints Day on November 1st followed by All Souls Day on the 2nd were set aside to honor, respectively, all of the prodigious number of Catholic saints and all deceased yet faithful Catholics.
No one knows precisely how pagan and Catholic rituals tussled and entwined, but an early version of Halloween was the result. And yet, what about this dalliance with death? What about the ghost stories and witches, the plastic skeletons hanging from porches and copious consumption of zombie movies? It would be wrong to assume that Catholicism, in honoring the dead, was first to bring death and the harvest together.
In Mexico, for instance, rituals surrounding All Souls Days reach a fever pitch in the elaborate foods, traditions, and celebrations of Día de los Muertos. But this does not imply that they simply and wholeheartedly embraced the Catholic calendar. In fact, historians have traced a holiday honoring the dead back to the Aztecs. And to this day, Mexican Catholic celebrations of All Souls have radically reinterpreted the European version of the holiday.
In remote reaches of the British isles, where Celtic traditions held out for longer against Catholic hegemony and interpreted religious doctrine in unexpected ways, we find the most obvious origins of Halloween. Samhain was the Celtic harvest festival, a time of transition from the light to dark, summer to winter. It was also a time during which the veil separating this world and the next was thought to be thin and people might stumble upon spirits and ancestors in the lengthening darkness. It was a time of relief, with a good stock of grain and fruit, but also a frightening time. The ease of summer was over and months of bare, dark winter had to be faced. Today, with ‘seasonality’ as a favorite buzzword of food marketers and restauranteurs, it is hard to imagine what true seasonal dependence meant—the flip side of that abundance of apples, hazelnuts, and fragrant mushrooms was a cold, hard period of paucity and a real fear of making it to the next harvest.
Fear and death manifested in many of the rituals practiced on ‘All Hallows Even’ (the evening before All Hallows Day). A favorite of the Irish was to carve out a turnip and place a candle inside, warding off any evil spirits that might come drifting across from the other world and make trouble for humans. For immigrant Irish in America, turnips where hard to find but they quickly stumbled upon a perfect ghost repelling vegetable. The pumpkin, native to North America, was larger and brightly colored, providing a far more spine-tingling spectacle when carved and lit.
I often wonder why it is that some traditions continue while others fade. There is power, of course. Those in control are often able to manipulate traditions to suit their own ends, and the subtle processes, permutations, and exceptions to this phenomenon are a subject of much academic scrutiny and debate. However, I also wonder if the physicality of some rituals or objects, their raw power to spark the imagination, can lend endurance to certain traditions. Perhaps jack-o-lanterns continue to flicker on doorsteps because the eerie glow they exude is so wonderfully malicious, so ripe for sinister fictions.
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Yesterday The Texan and I drove east to pick a pumpkin. The sky issued a pitiful drizzle and an ominous mist clung to the firs as we descended into the Snoqualmie river valley. We found Jubilee Farm, looking a bit forlorn under its coating of mud, squished and squelched our way to the pumpkin patch, and spent a while comparing the merits of various specimens. Eventually we chose a plump and brightly hued 20 pounder. The Texan heaved it onto his shoulder and stumped back to the car, mumbling about mud and how much fun this all was. I walked beside him, listing all the dishes we could make with this magnificent vegetable and breathing in the rain and the damp, dying leaves. Death and the harvest are inseparable, the one always following the other. Once home we carved a large malevolent grin into one side of our pumpkin. Then I used the mouth and eyes to make pumpkin curry and roasted the seeds to make crunchy pepitas—death and the harvest in one meal.