Carving Jack-O-Lanterns

It's been almost a week since our trip to the pumpkin patch and we finally carved pumpkins last night. According to many sources a carved pumpkin can last anywhere from two weeks to just a few days before it starts to get nasty, depending on many variables such as freshness of the pumpkin, temperature, and care taken to keep it intact. The weather was pretty warm at the first of the week, but I also want to have some time to enjoy my pumpkins before Halloween. And most importantly, when it comes to pumpkins, I have the patience of a small child! But hopefully my pumpkins will still be at least mostly whole for Halloween (eleven days away!).

Although carving a jack-o-lantern has been one of my favorite Halloween traditions for years, I haven't ever really thought about why we do it. It's such a funny thing, if you really think about it. We cut up a vegetable into a funny face and then light it up--it's a little strange. So, I did a search to see if I could find out why we carve pumpkins, and found the story on the University of Illinois Extention site. It's really quite a good myth:

People have been making jack-o-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack." According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul.

Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, simply "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 Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack o’lanterns.

We had so many pumpkins this year that we were able to make little pumpkin men. And we used Sweet Husband's drill--who doesn't love power tools? The result--some very boo-tiful jack-o-lanterns.

(Update 10/31/05: Pumpkins were too soggy to light tonight due to carving too early. Next year carve them later knucklehead!)