At the end of October, candles placed in carved pumpkins flicker and dance merrily within windows and balconies. Children carry hollow plastic pumpkins depicting scary or funny faces, in which to collect candy, while certain localities even organise pumpkin carving competitions, where amateurs and aficionados alike, try to re-create pictures or diagrams on pumpkins for a prize.
Why is Halloween associated with pumpkins and why do we carve them and put candles in them?
A carved pumpkin, also called a Jack-o’-Lantern, is a pumpkin which has been cleaned and hollowed out of its fresh inside flesh. The upper side of the pumpkin is usually cut out in a circular way, like a lid, and the smoother part of the round pumpkin is then used to carve a face. A candle is then placed in the hollowed out section, turning the pumpkin into a lantern and highlighting the design on it, especially in the darkness.
The tradition of using vegetables as lanterns dates back to ancient Ireland. Pumpkins at the time did not exist in that country, so turnips were the vegetables which were most commonly used as lanterns. The Irish believed that during Halloween (or Samhain), the veil between the living and the dead was very thin, and that at that time, spirits were very close to the earth. Therefore, they used to carve scary faces into their lanterns to scare and ward off evil spirits during the night.
Also important is The legend of Stingy Jack and his Jack-o’-Lantern. There are many versions of the legend, the most common one recounts how a thieving smith named Jack was being haunted by the devil who wanted his due. Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree and then he trapped him there by painting a cross on the bark of the tree, thereby preventing the devil from being able to climb down. Jack then made a bargain with the devil, telling him he would rub off the cross if the devil promised that he would never take him to hell. Years passed and Jack died of old age. God did not want him in heaven because he was a sinner, yet Satan could not take him because of the bargain. Jack was cursed to walk the earth forever as a troubled soul. As he was leaving hell, he asked the devil for a way to see in the darkness, and Satan gave him a coal from the fires of hell. Finding a turnip, Jack put the coal in it, and from then onwards, wandered miserably in the night, forever.
In the 1800s, a wave of Irish immigrants travelled to America and brought many of their beliefs with them. There, they discovered pumpkins, which were much easier to carve and prepare than turnips, and started to use them as Jack-o’-Lanterns instead.
In the United States, pumpkins were associated with the harvest season, long before the Irish immigration, and as harvest takes place around the end of October as well, the two traditions became intertwined. In that country, competitions of pumpkin carving abound, and the act of carving one’s pumpkins together as a family is tantamount to that of decking out the Christmas tree.
One of the most famous characters depicting Jack-o’-Lantern is Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, within the famous Tim Burton animated movie ‘Nightmare before Christmas’ (1933).
In Malta, the ‘Festa tal-Qargha Hamra’ (Pumpkin Feast) has been formally celebrated for years. This is usually an agricultural festival promoting the pumpkin as a Maltese vegetable and offering a number of pumpkin-related products for sale. Maltese cuisine offers a varied number of traditional recipes which includes the pumpkin, most well-known of which are the ‘Minestra’ and ‘Soppa tal-Qargha Hamra’.
This year, the Pumpkin Feast will be held in Manikata on Sunday 26th October. There will be stands with typical Maltese food including savoury pumpkin pies, pumpkin risotto, pumpkin soup and pumpkin tea cakes, set up by Kooperattiva Rurali Manikata.