By Larry Hodgson
This Halloween, both children and adults will take great pleasure in carving a pumpkin or other squash into a jack-o’-lantern: a gargoylesque face sometimes smiling, but more often grimacing, menacing and scary, that they can light with a candle or a light bulb to attract neighborhood children. The jack-o’-lantern has thus become a kind of illuminated advertisement, telling children disguised as witches, ghouls, superheroes and others which house to visit to fill their bag with treats.
With the gradual decrease in COVID restrictions in so many places, a lot of people are excitedly waiting to renew with this tradition that they had to put aside last year and intend to place a ghoulish jack-o’-lantern at the door of their home to announce: “Come on kids, we have sweets for you!”
The Origin of the Tradition
It hasn’t always been that way.
The tradition of the jack-o’-lantern carved out of a vegetable comes from Ireland and Scotland, where large turnips and field beets were carved into lanterns just before All Saints’ Day (the day following Halloween) in memory of the souls of people who died during the year, as this was when they were believed to leave limbo to ascend to heaven. However, the night before they left, All Hallow’s Eve, now Halloween, such souls were believed to wander about and create havoc. So, a terrifying lantern would be put in the window to keep the dead from entering the house.
It was the Irish who imported this tradition to North America, but with one difference: the pumpkin, a New World vegetable then unknown in Ireland, but which was larger and easier to carve than a turnip, came to replace the latter as the best vegetable for creating a jack-o’-lantern.
By the late twentieth century, the tradition of the jack-o’-lantern and Halloween treats was no longer simply North American, but gaining popularity worldwide.
At least that’s what you’ll read if you research the origin of jack-o’-lanterns. But there is also another origin to this tradition, one that comes from another part of the world completely: the Orient.
Sculpted Vegetables from The Orient
Long before the Irish, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, and other Asian peoples also used to carve vegetables, but for a completely different purpose. They have a long tradition of using carved vegetables strictly for ornamentation. This use was, in times past, usually restricted for decorating the tables of the elite, often the royal family, and usually associated with various festivals.
Today, though, carving vegetables is no longer so exclusive. If you travel in the Orient, especially in Thailand where it seems particularly popular, don’t be surprised to find beautiful sculpted vegetables in even fairly modest restaurants: carrots converted into roses, radishes into carnations, pineapples into lanterns and the like. You sometimes see this in the West as well. In fancier Thai restaurants, you’ll sometimes find your plate decorated with a radish carved into a flower, for example. But in Asia, the sculptures are often much more detailed. There are artisans who specialize in vegetable carving, and during festivals, there are competitions and demonstrations of this much-loved art.
For many Asians, the vegetable sculpture of the highest refinement is the carved soup tureen. On the outside of pumpkins, melons or watermelons, they’ll carve landscapes, paintings and much more. Contrary to our habit of punching holes in our pumpkins to let more of the candlelight shine through, the oriental carved vegetables are left unpierced, because in the hollowed-out fruit will serve to hold a hot or cold soup.
Pumpkin soup served straight from the pumpkin: isn’t that just the most sophisticated idea?
If you’re hosting a small, intimate group of vaccinated friends and family this Halloween, why not combine the two traditions? Carve your pumpkin into a scary Halloween face, but without piercing it, then serve a nice hot pumpkin soup inside it (you’ll need another pumpkin or squash to have enough flesh to make the soup). When the service is over, put a candle inside carved pumpkin, place it back on the table, then dim the lights. Even if it isn’t pierced through and through, the jack-o’-lantern will glow for the most beautiful effect.
Just something you could do to amaze your guests!