The tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns around this time of year goes back before we had the big orange gourds in the UK – I gather seasonal lanterns we carved from turnips and swedes. Given how hard and tough those root vegetables can be, it must have been quite some job.
It’s a great opportunity to express creativity. There are patterns out there for folks who don’t want to try and make their own designs. It’s great fun to get in there – especially with a child, and just improvise, but pumpkins can also be serious works of art. Last year in Portland, there was a huge display of them – they look good in groups, with all the different faces and expressions. Carved pumpkins are a lovely thing to have at Samhain rituals, or on the table if you want to make a feast for the dead at this time of year.
The insides of pumpkins also afford some scope for creativity. The stringy bit has to go, but any hard flesh you remove can be cooked an eaten. Jack O Lantern pumpkins are, unfortunately, about the least tasty member of the edible pumpkin family, but they go into soups, curries, cupcakes and other goodies well enough. When cooked, they break down into a pulp easily enough and are good for adding fibrous bulk to a meal.
I’m not sure what, historically, the ‘official’ reason for pumpkin lanterns has been. I suspect a chunk of it is simply that the pumpkins (and humbler root veg before them) come into season at the time when the nights are getting noticeably longer and darker, and the leaves turn and fall. It’s a harsh time of year, the shock of first frosts, falling temperatures and the prospect of a long winter ahead. It’s an innate human reaction to answer darkness with light. That doesn’t require you to believe anything, or it can be worked alongside any belief. Facing the uncertainties of winter, the pumpkin lantern is a joyful, expressive thing, good for family sharing, and brightening the evenings for a while.
My own belief (no kind of official anything here, just me) is that those bold pumpkin faces are a great way of warding off malign influences. They are house guardians, set up on the porch to see off whatever restless spirits the season unleashes. By making them scary or macabre, we can take control of our own fear as well. We can offer the creativity of them to our family community and ancestors. However you choose to celebrate, they’re an effective thing to use.