Pumpkin Thunkin: Thoughts on the Sophistication of Halloween.

My buddies had a pumpkin-carving party that is becoming what I hope to be annual. Unfortunately I was sick and could not attend. Had I attended, however, I would’ve carved a complex design in homage to Batman’s Long Halloween into the side of an artfully selected orange beauty.

As I sat at home in my jammy jams by myself I started thinking about complex pumpkins. Then sometime later I saw a picture of the pumpkins from that party. Three in a row saw, spoke, and heard no evil. One made some political statements about the upcoming California election. There were no strikingly complicated or intricate carvings among them.

I found this unusually awesome. I had been noting how it was so en vogue to gouge Gaugin out of a gourd, and had not fully felt my boredom with it.

After feeling it though, and ruminating in my self-appointed superiority over people who put lots of effort into pumpkins like some kind of Halloween Hipster, I started to wonder about it.

Where did the desire to make complicated pumpkin carvings come from?

The Jack-o’-Lantern hails from lots of wonderful old myths, including one Irish folktale about ol’ Stingy Jack being barred from heaven for his sins, and from Hell as the Devil promised to take his soul. So on his death he must wander around looking for a resting place. But as it was dark he could not see. The devil tossed him an ember from hell, a light that would never go out. Jack hollowed a turnip and placed the ember inside. He carried the lantern along as he wanders even until, I assume, this very night.

Obviously there are lots of versions of this tale, but I like that one the best. The first Jack-o’-Lantern was supposedly carved in 1239. Almost 800 years of habitual carving is supposedly traced back to one little peasant, Mr. Mike Chernis,  lighting a pumpkin in the likeness of Sir Kyle Paterson to illuminate his way through London.

There is a theme here in that Jack-o’-Lanterns seemed to have genuine use for lighting a dark night in fall. In Ireland they warded off evil spirits. Now they feature Barack Obama.

I have some relatively unfounded theories about the evolution of pumpkin carving that have little to do with the long history of the craft. In the United States, Halloween became an increasingly popular celebration for kids during the Baby Boom. Following the war machine families had money, wives stayed home, and middle class kids got masks and candy and pumpkins to play with, rather than to light their way or frighten away grandma’s vengeful ghost.

Aside from Nativist assholism during the Civil War, America kind of loves the Irish. Well, white America for the most part, and that seems to be the part that counts culture-wise unfortunately. But notations that these generalizations that insult minorities aside, I think that it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Irish families following World War wanted to share their heritage with their children. They also were there to protect them and give them attention because of their relatively comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

So then the Boomers grew up. They had Generation X and passed on the habits of their childhood Halloweens. Carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating was as much a joy for them as their children because it was a way of going back in time. In a way, maybe carving that Jack-o’-Lantern felt like an invitation for grandma’s nostalgic ghost to come visit on Halloween, rather than pass by.

But, now, here we come to my generation: Generation Y. The Generation of Dickheads.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m being harsh. But, really, we’re kind of disenchanted. We were part of the MTV Generation, but if you were on the tail-end like me, then you got to see the dawn of the Reality Show and Auto Tune.

Anyway, we’re the New Boomers. And since we’re the New Boomers, we kind of give the old Boomers the finger. I’ve noticed a lot of my peers feeling alienated from the old habits of Halloween. Our parents rebelled against their Boomer parents. The traditions of Halloween, like so many others were sort of haphazardly given to us by people who had previously rejected the people from whom they received them.

So we’re disconnected yet again. What does Generation Y do when we feel disconnected from a tradition? We make it meta.

We carve pumpkins with slogans, internet memes, political figures, and the Mona Lisa. I think this is another example of how we are trying to elevate and complicate traditions of the past to feel both connected to history while having a sense of era creativity. Examples?

Cupcakes, gourmet takes on comfort food, Film reboots, sequels/prequels/spoofs/re-imaginings of comics and novels, everything Hipsters do (embracing everything old with irony).

So Pumpkin carving is the expression of nostalgia for things we have not experienced. It’s a type of collage-work, symbolism, evocation of the things we value culturally, politically, memetically.

Jack-o’-Lanterns may be a poor substitute for a flashlight on a dark fall night, but they seem to light our way to our own Halloween traditions. I carved a pumpkin tonight. I stared at it for a while, thinking about whether or not I should cut a batarang into it. In the end I saw the grainlines and bumps pull into a grin. I watched a face light up. I sank the knife in and when I finished I wondered about the devil in the gourd who smiled at me laciviously. Was this the face of Sir Paterson?

It doesn’t matter that the candle within is not an ever-burning ember from hell.

It will burn all night, orange and bright, hazing the October air with its warm Irish light.

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