Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by John Howard Farmer

Carved Pumpkins 

Did ya get the news—no, not about church, about Trick or Treat? No public door canvassing for treats this year! Oh well—like everything else in life today, we press on to our new normal.

Alas, get ready: Boo! Scared you, didn’t I? Yeah, about like being scared by a carved pumpkin, right? Pumpkins are set about to indicate a fall harvest and also carved into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween. This preacher delights when we bake them into pumpkin pies. I like it heavy on the spice and baked in a thin crust. Please, hold the whipped cream. Always serve warm. In 1992, Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1950-2019, American writer) wrote on the frightful fruit and how it became associated with Halloween. I have used her resources liberally, and by the way, more than once…

Carved pumpkins create an eerie atmosphere. How the pumpkin became associated with Halloween is laid at the feet of an unfortunate soul named Jack—often a nickname for those of us named John. According to Irish folklore, Jack was well known for his drunkenness and quick temper. He got very drunk at a local pub on All Hallows Eve. There is a lesson here for those of us who think that our reputations will heal themselves. As his life began to slip away, the Devil appeared to claim his soul. Eager to stay alive, he begged the Devil to let him have just one more drink before he died. Too many of us know too many people who are begging for just one more drink. The Devil agreed. Jack was broke and asked the Devil if he would assume the shape of a coin so that Jack could pay for the drink. Afterwards, the Devil could change back.

Well, the Devil is quite gullible in almost all of these folktales. He agreed again to help Jack out and changed himself into money. Jack grabbed the coin and shoved it into his wallet that just happened to have a cross-shaped catch on it. The Devil, now locked in the wallet, screamed with rage and ordered Jack to release him.

Jack agreed to free him from his wallet if the Devil agreed not to bother Jack for a whole year. The Devil agreed to Jack’s terms. Realizing he now had a new lease on life, at least for a year, Jack decided to mend his ways. For a time, Jack was good to his wife and children and began to attend church and gave freely to charity.

Eventually Jack slipped back into his evil ways. The next All Hallows Eve, as Jack was heading home, the Devil appeared and demanded that Jack accompany him. Once again, Jack—not too eager to die—distracted the Devil by pointing to a nearby apple tree. Jack persuaded the Devil to get an apple out of the tree and even offered to hoist the Devil up on his shoulders to help him get the apple. The Devil, fooled once again by Jack, climbed into the tree and plucked an apple. Jack took out a knife and carved a cross into the trunk of the tree. Trapped once again, the Devil howled to be released. He told Jack he would give him 10 years of peace in exchange for his release.

Jack, on the other hand, insisted that the Devil never bother him again. The Devil agreed and was released.

Almost a year later Jack’s body, unable to keep up with Jack’s evil ways, gave out. Jack died. When he tried to enter Heaven, he was told that—because of his meanness—he would not be allowed in. When Jack attempted to gain entry into Hell, the Devil—still smarting from years of humiliation—refused Jack admission. However, being the kind Devil that he was, he threw Jack a piece of coal to help Jack find his way in the dark of limbo. Jack put the piece of coal into a turnip and it became known as a jack-o’-lantern. So, supposedly on All Hallows Eve, if you look, you can still see Jack’s flame burning dimly as he searches for a home.

You might be asking yourself, “Hmmm, that was an interesting story; but where do the pumpkins fit into this?” The use of jack-o’-lanterns as festival lights for Halloween is a custom that descended from the Irish who used carved out turnips or beets as lanterns. On Halloween, these lights represented the souls of the dead or goblins freed from the dead. When the Irish immigrated to America (1820-1930) they couldn’t find turnips to carve into jack-o’-lanterns, but they did find plenty of pumpkins. Pumpkins were substituted for the turnips and have been an essential part of Halloween celebrations ever since.

Well, now, I wonder how the outcome of the story would have been, had Jack called upon God rather than the Devil. Truth is, we want what we want, and know that God gives us what we need. Too often, we rely on the Devil to give us what we want. Our wants can carve us into frightful images at any season of the year. It is better to trust God than to bargain with the Devil.