Reflections: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Stingy Jack!

Legend had it that Stingy Jack was a miserly drunk who enjoyed playing tricks on everyone.

Stratford-Perth Archives jpg, SF

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Shireen Sasani

Stratford-Perth Archives

You seem them sprouting everywhere this time of year – those bright, round, orange-coloured fruits. (Yes, fruit.) Here in Canada, pumpkins traditionally go hand in hand with the fall holidays of Thanksgiving and Halloween. A fleshy orange fruit with a hard rind, and part of the winter squash family of gourds, this versatile plant features flowers, seeds and flesh that are both edible and rich in vitamins.

Pumpkins have been cultivated in North America for more than 5,000 years; they are indigenous to the western hemisphere. Pumpkins were an important cultural food staple to many First Nations. They were grown as one of the “three sisters” crops – maize, squash, and beans. These three plants, when planted in combination, tend to nourish each other, and thus were commonly grown and eaten together. Squash, and pumpkins, were introduced to the North American settlers upon their arrival in the area, which became a sustainable and nutritious food source for them as well.

So what can you do with a pumpkin? Pumpkins, as well as many other squash varieties, are featured in all sorts of mouth-watering recipes this time of year. For example, many Canadians typically include pumpkin pie in their Thanksgiving cavalcade of desserts. (See last week’s write-up on the delicious history of pie.) Decorative gourds festoon many a front porch and yard along with beautiful fall foliage. And don’t forget the popular Halloween tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns!

The folktale of Stingy Jack is what gave rise to this spooky tradition of vegetable carving, which actually originated hundreds of years ago in Ireland. Legend had it that Stingy Jack was a miserly drunk who enjoyed playing tricks on everyone. He made a deal that the Devil could have his soul if he’d only pay for a few drinks first. The Devil turned himself into a silver coin for Jack to use, but he’d slyly put a cross in his pocket where he kept the coin so the Devil couldn’t turn back into himself. Jack eventually freed the Devil after making him promise not to take his soul for a year, and that should he die, the Devil would not claim his soul.

The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil by getting him to climb into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so the Devil could not come down until he promised Jack not to bother him for 10 more years. The Devil was incensed, but agreed. A short time later, Jack died, and since he hadn’t been a great guy, heaven rejected him. But when he went to hell, the Devil reminded him the deal was no claim on his soul, so he gave Jack a burning coal instead and turned him away. Jack carved up a turnip to place the coal in and, as the story goes, has spent the rest of eternity wandering the night alone with his turnip lamp. Originally, these “Jack o’ the Lantern” spirit lamps were carved out of turnips, potatoes, or beets; they were emblazoned with scary faces in them to keep Jack and other wandering spirits away. It wasn’t until Irish immigrants arrived in North America and discovered the perfectly sculpt-able pumpkin that a twist on a classic Halloween ritual was born.

Pictured here is a Hallowe’en-style postcard that was sent from an American friend in 1920 to a Mrs. Henry (Freida) Manhke of Gowanstown in Wallace Township. On it is a “scaredy-cat” pumpkin character, quite possibly a humorous take on the old Jack-o’-lantern tradition. It is part of the Jessie Hamilton fonds located at the Stratford-Perth Archives. Happy October everyone, and may you enjoy lots of seasonal pumpkin goodness!

The Stratford-Perth Archives is located at 4273 Line 34 (Highway 8), just west of Stratford. Drop in for research from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. Parades, Picnics and Power exhibit now open. Please call 519-271-0531 ext. 259 or email with any questions.