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I think Jack-o-lanterns are my favorite of all seasonal decorations. Today they are the quintessential Halloween icon, yet the first jack-o-lanterns weren't carved in pumpkins at all—they were made from turnips!
Jack-o-lanterns originated many centuries ago in Europe. The Celtic people there had a seasonal celebration called Samhain. The celebration honored death because it was the season of death—all around them, leaves were falling, grasses were drying out, and animals that could not be overwintered because of lack of food and shelter were slaughtered to be eaten over the barren winter. As all the life energies of the earth go underground to prepare for new growth the next spring, it was natural to acknowledge the end of the cycle of life for the year, get ready for the long, cold, lifeless winter ahead.
Just as the physical world returned to its spiritual roots, so too did the people turn their attention to the spiritual world. It was thought that at this time of year the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was lifted and the spirits and the living could move between the two worlds. And so this became the time to celebrate death and the existence of spirits.
In the Celtic regions of northern Europe adults and later children, would go out after dark on the eve of Samhain and travel from house to house asking for handouts of food or money. They dressed either as ghosts and skeletons to represent the spirits or in masquerade to protect themselves from evil spirits that might do them harm. The nocturnal travelers carried lanterns made out of hollowed-out vegetables, usually turnips, in which they placed a small candle. When the tradition came to America, there were other vegetables that could be used, and gradually the pumpkin became the preferred choice. Some traditions say jack-o-lanterns are to scare away evil spirits; others say they welcome the spirits of the deceased. Either way, the jack-o'-lantern is a magical fixture for this night.
One Halloween, while looking at a jack-o-lantern, I suddenly became aware that symbolically, the jack-o-lantern shows the light of spirit shining through the physical form. That light is always there, but on Halloween, the light of spirit becomes visible. Traditionally, the concept of “spirit becoming visible” brings out the ghosts, but, to me, it became a reminder of the spiritual beings that we are, and how we can always shine, even on a dark, cold night.
My personal Halloween tradition is to purchase an organically-grown pumpkin sometime in the month of October. I like to look for a “pumpkin patch” set up by the Boy Scouts or a church as a fundraiser and buy my pumpkin there. When I lived in California, we would often go to Half Moon Bay, where they have several miles of small family pumpkin farms along a winding road. It’s a nice autumn drive and very picturesque.
On Halloween night, October 31st, I carve the pumpkin face and light the candle. Each evening between Halloween and Samhain, November 7 or 8, I light the candle. Usually, by Samhain, jack is starting to get soft and moldy, so by the day of death, we have a “dying” jack-o-lantern. The following morning I slice it up and return it to the Earth via the compost pile.
I love taking a break from the busyness of modern life to bring my attention to what is going on in nature. After all, though I’m a human being, I am part of the natural world and all its cyclic changes.