In a quiet, dark room, lit only by yellow candlelight, your fingers close around the knife handle. You’re terrified. It’s been a year since you’ve plunged a sharp knife into such thick, dry skin, and yet, as you near your victim, the sensation feels familiar. Your confidence grows, because you’ve done this before.
You chop off the head. You reach inside the carcass. In up to your elbow, you grasp the slimy innards and pull—pull—pull until the stomach contents are strewn about your kitchen table. Then, you carve a face into the monster, and it looks back at you, eyes ablaze, open mouth screaming in silence.
I’m talking about pumpkin carving. Obviously.
A little history about our so-called “Jack O’Lanterns.” The original story comes from Ireland. There was this town drunk, known as Stingy Jack. He liked to play tricks and cause general mischief, until one day, he played a trick on the Devil. Big mistake, dude, but because of his trick, Jack made the Devil promise never to take his soul. Eventually, Stingy Jack died. When he went to Heaven, St. Peter told him he wasn’t a good enough person to enter the pearly gates. So Jack went down to Hell, but the Devil refused to take his soul because of the promise he had once made.
On his way out of Hell, the Devil tossed Stingy Jack an ember to light his eternity on earth. Jack put the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, destined to wander the earth, alone and forlorn, forever. So to this day, on All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) in Ireland, people carve vegetables and place candles inside to keep Stingy Jack away. In the 1800s, Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, where they discovered pumpkins, which were much bigger and easier to carve. Hence the Jack O’Lantern.
I will freely admit that I’m terrible at pumpkin carving. I do it because it’s fun, not because I think I’m good at it. As I’ve mentioned before, on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina, there is an annual pumpkin carving contest at Poe’s Tavern (named for spook king, Edgar Allan Poe, who served at Fort Moultrie on the island). I would go to Poe’s with two of my gal pals, Becky and Mary, who had grown up on Sullivan’s. They would usually win the contest, which meant our bar tab was paid for.
And no, I didn’t just go because my bar tab ended up FREE. I went because it was marvelous to see other people’s pumpkin skills. Mary and Becky were among the best. But by the end of the night, there were dozens of close contenders, all lined up and glowing on the entrance steps to the tavern.
There’s just something eerie about Jack O’Lanterns, especially if you think about the Irish folklore. I do love the process, but I more so love the end result: the orange, glowing monster on my kitchen table, protecting my house from evil spirits and Stingy Jack. Don’t you love the way the pumpkin smiles its secret smile? Don’t you love the way the pumpkin smells with the candle slowly roasting inside? Don’t you freakin’ love Halloween?
Our time together in Halloween Town has almost come to an end. Only one more post in this glorious month of revelry, folklore, and honoring the dead. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. And don’t forget to light your Jack O’Lantern, or Stingy Jack might pay you a visit on All Hallow’s Eve.