In the dusky light, I removed the longest, sharpest knife from the butcher block, its blade emitting an ominous tone as metal scraped against wood. Shhwing! There, on plastic sheeting, lay my subject — plump, round and motionless.
Suddenly, a damp chill crept through the window sash, and a shiver ran up my spine, setting my heart and hands in motion!
Before I knew it, I had hacked off its top, and was pulling handfuls of slimy innards from its open cavity. Heart pounding, my knife plunged again and again into flesh, where eyes, nose and mouth belonged.
I stood back to catch my breath, and beheld its hideous glory. “It is done!”
This may sound like a scene from “Dexter,” but actually, I’m describing a festive fall activity beloved by children for many years — Halloween pumpkin carving.
Every red-blooded-American has made a jack-o’-lantern at some point in his or her life. Back in the 1970s, my brother and I cut our pumpkins with serrated steak knives, completely unsupervised by our parents, who were busy smoking Tartyton 100s and watching “Love Boat” in our avocado and gold living room. Later, after my brother went out to toilet-paper the neighborhood, my mom would roast the seeds in our oven, with a pinch of salt.
But pumpkin carving didn’t start in the 1970s. The tradition of making jack-o’-lanterns to ward off evil spirits (thought to roam the earth on Halloween) actually began in 19th century Ireland, where Celtic-speaking people cut scary faces into hollowed-out turnips. When the Irish immigrated to America, they found plentiful indigenous squash called “pumpkins” to carve their jack-o’-lanterns, the tradition that lives on today.
However, modern folks are no longer concerned about warding off evil spirits or perpetuating obscure Irish traditions. In today’s world of instant gratification, overprotective parenting, passivity and germophobia, one must wonder why such a messy, labor-intensive, potentially dangerous ritual persists at all.
Obviously, the desire to carve pumpkins transcends the advances of modern life. But why?
Our family has carved pumpkins every year, at every duty station, both home and abroad.
In Washington, D.C., our jack-o’-lantern sat on our apartment complex balcony overlooking the Hamburger Hamlet. In California, our carved pumpkin sunned itself on the patio of our brown and beige Fort Ord house. In the U.K., our jack-o’-lantern was stomped to bits by marauding English schoolboys in crested jackets. In Virginia, our pumpkins sat safely around our quiet suburban cul-de-sac. In Germany, we lugged our jack-o’-lanterns from our Patch Barracks stairwell apartment down to the shared patio, where dozens burned together on Halloween night. In Florida, our pumpkins succumbed quickly to fire ants and searing heat. In Rhode Island, our jack-o’-lanterns would’ve lasted forever in the New England chill, except that the squirrels decided they’d make a good pumpkin smorgasbord.
No matter where we were stationed in the world, we were determined to carve pumpkins at Halloween.
What are the psychological forces that drive us to arm ourselves with dangerous kitchen utensils, attack poor defenseless squashes, and shamelessly display their gutted remains on porch steps and front stoops?
Perhaps humans crack under intense consumer industry pressure to buy Halloween decor, cheap imported novelties, and mountains of miniaturized candies? Or, maybe all the pumpkin-flavored foods are getting to us, as we guzzle gallons of pumpkin lattes, slurp spoonfuls of pumpkin soup, scarf sleeves of Pumpkin Spice Oreos, and gulp gobletfuls of pumpkin wine. Or, could it be that the political divisiveness of the recent campaign season has us all wanting to rip the flesh out something?
We may never know why today’s families see yearly pumpkin carving as the only exception to standard rules against carrying sharp objects, lighting matches, and playing with food. But what we do know, is that there’s something ironically sweet and wholesome about carving pumpkins. Coming together as a family. Creating a work of whimsy. Standing back to watch it glow.
And, when it’s all done, roasting the seeds like mom did, with a pinch of salt.