It’s the Great Pumpkin, People!

Jack be Nimble
Jack be Quick
Jack’s been carving candlesticks
and putting them in hollowed out vegetables for about 300 years


Origins of Jack o’ the Lantern
Of course, there aren’t any pumpkins in Scotland and Ireland which started the tradition of putting candlesticks in food. This lighting practice originated in turnips which are plentiful and easier to grow in the resistant soil. The jack o’ the lantern carving was reminiscent of the lights that appeared in peat bogs which represented spirits of the dead (like Gollum says, don’t look at the lights). Jack of the Lantern was also the name of a story  about an Anglo-Saxon trickster, a character who might fool the devil or fairies through cleverness rather than through strength or hard work. The same character ends up climbing beanstalks, killing giants, spreading frost, and sticking his thumb into pies.

Pumpkins are native to America, so the early colonists shifted the idea of carving to the vegetable at hand. Soon enough, we not only had jack o’ lanterns in these United States, but we had stories about pumpkin-heads from Washington Irving (1820) and L. Frank Baum (1929). Halloween as a holiday expanded and changed – with a little help from capitalism – to the major event it is today, an event which now other countries are adopting.

Halloween Then and Now
The Halloween as we know it emerged from four elements:

  • A celebration of spirits of the dead or spirits in general
  • Donning costumes to act out plays, sometimes called “mumming” and sometimes carried on by troupes traveling house to house
  • A celebration of the trickster, especially one who tricks the spirits or the devil
  • Horror and Halloween in stories, arising out of a Gothic tradition but proliferating in the United States, especially through film

Many cultures have a celebration honoring the dead. For northern Europeans, the October 31/ November 1st dates lie roughly between the fall equinox and winter solstice. Like other holidays celebrated February 1, May 1, and August 1, the festival was tied to the seasons with Samhain (November 1) reflecting the seasonal transition as a time when the portal between life and death opens. The holiday did honor and remember those who had died and but also reflected the idea of doorways across time and different dimensions, when spirits of those who “crossed over” could reappear. Or the spirits could be fairies or alt-beings who needed to be honored and appeased in order to ensure that harvest food lasted through the winter.

The Catholic church, as it often did, co-opted Samhain, turning it into a three day celebration that extended to November 2nd. November 1st in the church became All Saints’ day, where saints are honored, and November 2nd became All Souls’ Day, where family members or loved ones are honored. In similar fashion, the Aztecs had a festival honoring the dead – Dia de los Muertos — that was co-opted and moved on the calendar as well. It’s now a huge holiday through Central America. Similarly, the Japanese have the Bon Festival, the Chinese have Qingming and the Hungry Ghost Festival, just as the Hindus, South Koreans, Nepalese and other cultures have religious and secular periods for honoring the dead.

Donning costumes or masks as part of telling a story is perhaps the most ancient of art forms next to drawing on cave walls. The idea of costumed “trick or treating” can be traced to a couple of door to door practices. First, the “mummers” were groups of traveling actors who would go door to door – or castle to castle or alehouse to alehouse – to put on their plays. They would ask for food and shelter as a reward.

Also, as part of the All Souls’ three-day observance, the practice of baking soul cakes arose – all festivals are better with food! The heavily-spiced cakes were baked and put out on All Hallows’ Eve to appease the spirits as well as given to children who went door to door the two days afterwards, promising to pray for the departed loved ones of the givers. Trick or treating seems to have sprung into its shape today based on this door to door practice merged with the economic boom in the 20th century post WWII. Wikipedia mentions instances of trick or treating as early as 1920 from Alberta:

Hallowe’en provided an opportunity for real strenuous fun. No real damage was done except to the temper of some who had to hunt for wagon wheels, gates, wagons, barrels, etc., much of which decorated the front street. The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word “trick or treat” to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing.

But the depression and sugar rationing in World War II would have curtailed the largesse to a great degree, and even in the late 1940s and early 1950s, popular culture held little reference to trick or treating. By the 1960s, however, the capitalist might of the American Confectioners Association and their pals — the Hershey, Mars, Nestle and NECCO corporations – was in full swing and advertising heavily referenced the practice of giving out candy door to door. (By the way, NECCO stands for New England Confectionary Company and their website claims that their founder, Oliver Chase, invented the first American candy machine, a lozenge cutter in 1847. Which is probably why NECCO lozenges still taste like they were first cut in 1847.)


You Don’t Know Jack
Stories about tricksters also cross multiple cultures – Loki to the Norse, Hermes and Dolos to the Greeks, Rabbit to the Mayans, or Monkey to the Chinese. The key to the trickster is that he solves his problems through guile rather than physical prowess.  Jack the trickster is lazy,  foolish, silly, disrespectful, irreverent,  a drunkard but also an opportunist and master of disguise.

In the Irish version of a story about Stingy Jack, the drunkard goes drinking with the devil and convinces Satan to pay the tab by changing into a coin which Jack sticks next to a crucifix in his pocket. He later convinces Satan to climb an apple tree and then surrounds the tree with crucifixes, trapping the devil while he escapes.

American culture also has its share of tricksters – most famously, Bugs Bunny. Bugs doesn’t take on Death or the Devil per se, but he certainly has a shotgun pointed at his face most of the time. He’s constantly escaping by donning a costume, transforming nearby objects, or creating misleading or clever signs. The other well-known American cultural trickster is the one who appears on Halloween night to fool our brave knight Linus, sitting oh-so-sincerely in the pumpkin patch. It’s Snoopy that rises out of the pumpkin patch after pretending to fight the red baron, imitating other creatures, and popping out of the water to kiss Lucy. (Augghhh Dog Germs! Somebody get some iodine!) Snoopy started out as a side character but became so popular that he ended up with his own stories, with far more marketing merchandise devoted to his image than Charlie Brown’s.


Pumpkins, Poe, and the new Mythologies
We don’t have pumpkin patches that grow pumpkins for eating the way the early settlers would have. More pumpkins are produced now than two hundred years ago, but as much for carving on Halloween than for eating. Still, Charles Schultz would surely have had knowledge of the town two hours south of Santa Rosa where he drew his Peanuts cartoons for forty years. Half Moon Bay, on our northern California coast, hosts the annual World Championship Pumpkin Festival each October. The winner in 2016 was a teacher, Cindy Tobeck, with an entry that weighed nearly a ton at 1910 pounds.

Schultz said in his Great Pumpkin themed strips that he simply wanted to tell a story about a kid who was confused about the holidays, conflating Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to create this idea of the Great Pumpkin.

Charlie Brown:  Who are you writing to, Linus?
Linus: This is the time of year to write to the Great Pumpkin. On Halloween night, the Great Pumpkin rises out of his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys for all the children!
Charlie Brown: You must be crazy. When are you going to stop believing in something that isn’t true?
Linus: When *you* stop believing in that fellow with a red suit and the white beard who goes, “Ho, ho, ho!”

But there are layers of irony here. Irony #1. Halloween is a holiday created out of stories. The idea of splitting hairs between truth and fiction seems absurd when done by someone dressed in a costume to go begging candy door to door in order to appease spirits of the dead. Irony #2. This fifty year old story is now one of the great Halloween holiday traditions shared with families around the world. Linus has created a mythology that has stood the test of time, currently more rooted in memory than soul cakes, mummers, or the original meaning of Samhain.

The other Halloween story, the horror story, comes from Gothic traditions, both American and European. Edgar Allen Poe joined Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker in creating many  “monsters” that have become cultural icons. The American film industry took it much much further, with the explosion of monster movies starting in the 1940s, and the scary movies of Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and others in the 1960s and beyond. Consider that when the Great Pumpkin first aired on television in 1966, there was no Freddy Krueger, Jason with his Chainsaw, Hannibal Lecter, Blair Witch, Exorcist, Carrie, Jaws, or even zombies.( Night of the Living Dead, 1968)  A lot of what we recognize now as part of the Halloween tradition is more recent than the Great Pumpkin.

So, while Halloween put down roots in northern Europe, was modified by the Christians, borrowed elements from multiple other cultures, lauded the ubiquitous trickster, and provided treats for those in costume – it’s still evolving. Irony #3. Linus, while teased for acting foolishly, joins other knights from ancient quests.  Like Percival searching for the Holy Grail, Linus holds an all-night vigil – vigils were an actual All Hallows’ Eve tradition. He is jilted by potential suitors, frightened by a “monster,”  and rescued by a comrade (Lucy gets him out of the freezing patch and puts him to bed). Still, he stays sincere and keeps faith for next year.

After all, who’s to say what the next Halloween will contain? We could see a proliferation of flash mobs, all performing the Thriller dance in pumpkin patches as the Great Pumpkin rises to bathe the earth with good will. Why would that be less true than anything else? Either the Cubs or the Indians are going to be World Series champions by then. Anything can happen.


Leave a Reply