Saturday, October 31, 2009


Myths are driving forces in our lives—they are stories based on fact that became central to our understanding of the society we are in. Even though we often know that myths are not real we still embrace them because they define our culture and our place in time. Halloween is one of these myths in American culture. Though it is based on historical events and has roots in Celtic and Christian traditions, we often don’t think about the reality of the myth—we prefer the fantasy. Halloween is one night of the year when over-protective parents decide it’s okay for their children to take candy from strangers, rambunctious adolescents can egg and toilet paper helpless suburban homes with no fear of punishment, and everyone gets to wear a disguise.

The myth of Halloween perpetuates itself through the practice of different traditions. Many of these Halloween traditions involve food—bobbing for apples, trick or treating, and carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns. The sight of those bright orange bulbous gourds always evokes the sense of autumn harvest and, of course, the coming of Halloween. They provide food in the form of pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup, and roasted seeds, but one of the greatest joys a pumpkin can provide is the jack-o’-lantern.

The introduction of the jack-o’-lantern to America is generally associated with Irish immigrants who came to America in the nineteenth century. The Irish believed in the tale of Stingy Jack, who was a man that tricked the Devil so often that when Jack died the Devil wouldn’t let him claim his soul in the afterlife. Stingy Jack was forced to wander the earth and carried with him a hallowed turnip with a burning coal held inside. In an effort to keep away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits the Irish traditionally carved scary faces into turnips or potatoes, placed a light in them, and set them out on All Hallows Eve. The English also followed this tradition but usually carved the faces into beets. After immigrating to America in the nineteenth century, the Irish chose pumpkins as the best choice to keep away terrifying spirits.

The tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns is based in these past events but has transformed and evolved in our modern culture. Today, although the pursuit of processed sugar and polyester costumes has become a focal point of this ancient holiday, we still take the time to carve our jack-o’-lanterns every year, passing on this tradition to future generations. We continue to spook ourselves with ghost stories, listen for the sounds of the supernatural when we switch off the lights, and let the myth of Halloween glow strongly through those scary pumpkin faces.

Happy carving everyone!

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