Tomato season is ending, the fall weather is upon us, and our first frost normally occurs the second week of October. Halloween is coming, and it is jack-o’-lantern season.
Our ancestors have been making jack-o’-lanterns for centuries. What you may not know is that the story did not start with pumpkins, but with something a little lowlier — the turnip.
Centuries ago, early jack-o’-lanterns in Ireland were carved out of large turnips or even potatoes. Beets were more commonly used in England. It wasn’t until settlers came to the Americas and were introduced to the pumpkin that the jack-o’-lantern took on its modern identity.
But why do we call them jack-o’-lanterns? The name hearkens back to an Irish folk tale about a man named Stingy “Cheap” Jack. Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him at the pub, and when it came time to pay, Jack convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin to pay the bill.
Jack then shoved the coin in his pocket next to a crucifix keeping him trapped for a year until the devil promised that he would not bother Jack for a whole year or claim his soul if he died. Exactly one year later, the devil came back, and, once again, Stingy Jack tricked him. Jack had the devil climb a tree to pick fruit. While the devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross in the bark of the tree, trapping him. This time, Jack got the devil to promise to leave him alone and not to claim his soul for 10 years.
During those 10 years, old Stingy Jack did finally die. God refused to allow such an unsavory character to enter heaven, and the devil wanted nothing to do with Jack after all the trouble Jack had caused him.
The devil turned Jack away from hell, sending him into the darkness with only a hot coal to light his way. Jack carved a turnip into a lantern to hold his coal, which continues to light his way as he is forced to roam the earth for eternity. The Irish called the ghostly figure of the tormented man and his turnip lantern “Jack of the Lantern,” which has shortened to jack-o’-lantern.
For centuries now, people have been carving jack-o’-lanterns out of innocent vegetables (and fruits) to ward away Stingy Jack and all manner of evil creatures of the night.
Enough of legends, it is now time to venture out to our favorite pumpkin patch.
Ron Wolford, horticulture educator, Illinois Extension, gives these tips:
Avoid pumpkins with holes, cuts, or soft spots. These areas will decay.
Use the thumbnail test. Press your thumbnail into the pumpkin, if your nail makes a scratch in the pumpkin, it may not be the best choice.
Select a pumpkin with a flat bottom, so it will stand upright, and has a stem of at least 1 or 2 inches long that does not break easily and never carry pumpkins by the stem. One other suggestion Light-colored pumpkins are easier to carve because the skin is not as hard as darker ones, although they will not keep as well.
After selecting your pumpkin, store it in a cool place. If storing the pumpkin outdoors try to avoid south and west side of buildings, or near pavement because they tend to be warmer as the heat of the sun reflects the radiant energy.
Before carving, wash the pumpkin with warm water and let it dry. After carving, coat the inside of the pumpkin and the cuts with petroleum jelly. A pumpkin cut for Halloween will last seven to 10 days depending on weather conditions.
Portions of this article were acquired from the University of Illinois Extension and more information can be found at https://extension.illinois.edu/news-releases/how-pick-perfect-pumpkin.