Block of the Week: Pumpkin

Part food! Part hat! All block.

The fall! Autumn. The quiet death of summer. The days darken and cool. Leaves slough from the trees, leaving their skeletal limbs to claw at the grey skies. And at their sodden roots writhe vines budding with corpulent growths.

That's pumpkin season, baby!

Yep, it’s the time to hack the flesh out of a pumpkin’s portly body, carve evil visages into its skin, and celebrate the appearance of supernatural horrors across our lands!

Come to think about it, jack-o'-lanterns are one of the stranger customs around. I don’t know about you, but I spend exactly no time around pumpkins for almost an entire year, and then suddenly they’re everywhere! And then they sadly collapse on themselves, get chucked into the bin, and that’s that for another 11 months and two weeks.

For me, a slowly decaying jack-o'-lantern is one of the more depressing sights of the year. Poor old thing. Hat tip to Chris Schrier for this picture representing the desperate impermanance of life!

They originate, however, from an old Irish legend. It’s about Stingy Jack, a devious and rather nasty old man who plays cruel tricks on all his neighbours and family. In fact, he’s such a despicable fellow that the Devil figures he’s going to take his soul, and so starts a series of scrapes the pair get into.

There are a few stories, but one of them tells of the time the Devil catches up with him and informs Stingy Jack that this time he is definitely going to be dragging him to Hell. Jack says, “OK, sure, this time you’ve got me,” but he convinces the Devil to climb up a nearby tree to give him an apple first. Jack quickly arranges a bunch of crucifixes around its base, trapping the Devil in its branches, and forces the Devil to promise that in exchange for letting him free, he will never take Jack’s soul.

The secret of good pumpkin carving is the assistance of a responsible adult! Try drawing out your design on paper first, before you start hacking away, too. Thanks to William Warby for the picture!

Eventually, Jack dies and finds himself at the Pearly Gates. Being bad to the bone, he’s denied entry, so he goes down to Hell. But the Devil, remembering his promise, can’t let him into Hell either. Jack’s trapped in the darkness between the two and gets a little panicked. The Devil, if only to get rid of Jack, gives him an ember of fire to light his way, and having nothing on him but his favourite vegetable, Jack catches the ember inside and goes on with it to wander the land alone for eternity.

Now, here’s the thing. Back in Ireland, Jack’s fave veg was a turnip because... Well, who knows, really. But when the story travelled with Irish immigrants to north America, turnips were rare. But they did have pumpkins, which were native to the continent. And so rather than carving turnips as they did in the old country, they turned their knives on to these unfortunate members of the squash family.

Traditional jack-o'-lanterns made from turnips are absolutely scarier than their modern versions, as this example from the early 20th century chillingly proves. Hats off to the brave curators of the Museum of Country Life in Ireland for housing this genuinely horrendous thing. *Tries to unsee.*

And so began the jack-o'-lantern as we know it today! And it’s also why jack-o'-lanterns in Minecraft take special meaning at the end of October, since around that time you’ll see zombies and skeletons wearing them. And you can wear them, too, to look fearsome and gain a rather remarkable power: THE ABILITY TO LOOK AN ENDERMAN IN THE EYE WITHOUT RILING IT UP. Jack-o'-lanterns: great looks, super powers.

See you next time, Block-o’-th’-Week fans!