Reflections On A Jack-o’-Lantern

© 1980, 2014 By Bob Litton

Even the most sophisticated civilization needs its rituals, and what best justifies a ritual is how thoroughly it manages to reforge the links in the “Great Chain of Being”—vegetable, animal, human and spirit.

Because Halloween achieves such integration so preeminently, it has remained one of our popular festivals, notwithstanding its dangers. Our spirits can be as unholy and mischievous as the law and our own good sense will allow. We let our Dionysian hair down—become good-naturedly silly.

The animal kingdom’s contributions to this celebration are of course the black cat and the bat. But the one is too common and the other too uncommon to be truly representative. It seems beyond question that the plant kingdom provides the symbol that is inseparable from Halloween: the pumpkin. As a natural lantern, with its decoratively carved features resembling at once both a foolish human and a grinning ghoul, the pumpkin in a single piece manifests the vegetable-human-spirit linkage.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of the pumpkin-turned-jack-o’-lantern is that such a transformation can happen at all. Is it not something of a miracle that a squat, ungainly gourd can by a few triangular gashings from one’s knife, a complete gutting and an inserted candle be changed into a personality? We are tempted to fall into “pathetic fallacy” and assert our pumpkin wanted to become a jack-o’-lantern.

One can hardly wait for nightfall to kindle the candle’s wick.  And when dark has come, the flame, flickering shadow-maker, is as mysterious as any fire under a witch’s kettle. By the sprite-like aura with which it invests the pumpkin, the candle’s flame contributes to the spirit element in the ritual.

From its position in the window or on the porch, the jack-o’-lantern’s grinning face forms an oval of warm light in the frosty night. It beams a welcome to those knowing enough to comprehend more than its spooky aspect.


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