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The Curcubita pepo | Blacksmiths, Turnips & Devilish tricks

Every year Halloween, or all Hallow’s eve, lands on the 31st of October and is a time of fun for children and adults alike. Trick or treating, endless bags of sweets and witchy costumes are some things that make Halloween so much fun, especially for kids. Most of all though it is the carved ‘Jack-o-lantern’ which grin devilishly at us wherever we turn that have become the emblem of the Harvest festival. You simply can’t think of Halloween without this spooky pumpkin face coming to mind.

So who is this Jack in the Lantern and how did his story spread across the globe?

The tale of Jack-o-lantern is actually a story which originates in Irish Folklore. The story tells the fate of a blacksmith called Stingy Jack who was a deceiving drunk and a manipulating thief. When the devil comes to take the sinner away to hell, Jack manages to deceive the devil to give him one more drink and subsequently uses crucifixes in his pocket to turn the devil into a coin. Then, when ten years later Satan once again comes to take him away, Jack again tricks the devil into getting stuck in an apple tree by surrounding it in crucifixes. Eventually, the drunken lifestyle takes its toll on Jack and he dies and when he tries to enter heaven he is turned away by God.Begging to be allowed to enter hell, even the devil turns him away as revenge. So now, Jack is said to roam eternally between good and evil, heaven and hell with only a turnip lantern to light his way.

A turnip you say? What about the Pumpkin?

Well, it was actually Turnips that were first used to make these glowing lanterns. The practice of hollowing out turnips or Mangel wurzels, was long used in Celtic regions in Ireland and Scotland to ward off evil spirits during the festival of Samhain which is seen as a time when souls of the dead roamed the earth. The grotesque faces carved into the turnips were thought to represent the faces of these spirits and the practice was thought to ward off against these evil beings. The carvings made of these creatures are truly haunting and a far cry from the comical expressions of many carved pumpkins today-just look at the face of this turnip which was carved in the early 20th Century. It is on display in the Museum of Country Life in Mayo. Definitely not a face I’d like to see on a dark night!


Image courtesy of Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia

The carving of lanterns worldwide from vegetables is actually a very ancient one. Gourds were probably the earliest vegetable to be domesticated by humans and they are thought to have been used carved into lanterns about 10,000 years ago! Evidence shows that the Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand used gourds to make lamps about 700 years ago and the name for gourd in Māori language is even the same as lampshade!

But what about pumpkins? Well, it was thought that it was actually Irish immigrants that brought the custom of carving these traditional Jack-o-lanterns to North America where the commonly available native Pumpkin- Cucurbita pepo, came to be used for carving. This pumpkin was larger and far easier to carve due to the fact that it had a natural hollow inside. By the mid to late 19th Century the practice of carving pumpkins at Halloween became a tradition and has been such a popular one ever since.

Photo © Colin Gillen/framelight.ie

Photo © Colin Gillen/framelight.ie

Growing the Pumpkin Cucurbita pepo Pumpkins are actually very easy to grow yourself and do very well in our climate. This very large specimen I am holding here is from the Organic Centre in Leitrim where there are many different varieties growing both outside and inside the polytunnels. If you fancy growing some yourself it’s a great thing to do with children, who find it fascinating to see the pumpkins grow throughout the year to be finally harvested for Halloween carving. You can sow pumpkins indoors on a window sill or in a greenhouse in April or early May and then transplant them outside in May or early June. The pumpkin plant will thrive in a sunny spot and loves well drained but moist soil. It will also love some well rotten manure as this plant grows fast and needs plenty of nutrients!

Harvest the pumpkin when it starts to turn orange and it will deepen more in colour even when taken off the plant. You can grow many varieties this way and there are numerous smaller gourd varieties are actually fantastic for ornamental purposes such as the white and green ones in the picture. Unfortunately these can’t be eaten. Plan ahead for next year’s delights At this time of the year we are preparing our gardens for Winter. From frost protection to maintenance there are a few vital things to do before the cold season truly sets in. One of the most important things to think about when the garden is in its dormant stage, is planning ahead for next growing season in the garden.

Did you know? It is widely believed that Halloween has its roots in the Pagan tradition of Celtic harvest festivals such as the festival of Samhain which signifies the end of a seasonal cycle where crops were harvested and animals were slaughtered for food. The festival also marked the last day of the pagan calendar year where it was thought that the souls of the departed would return to their former homes. Happy Halloween everyone!

As published in the Irish Mail on Sunday on the 30.10.16

With kind thanks to the Organic Centre in Country Leitrim & Tiffany and Michel Budd in County Sligo

Photo By: Colin Gillen

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