There are just a few days in the calendar where the date dictates the activity. October 31st is one of these for me – I will be carving a pumpkin.
Originally turnips or mangelwurzels were carved rather than pumpkins, in a British tradition going back at least three hundred years, but thousands of years worldwide. There are a variety of stories put forward for carving the turnip on All Hallows Eve, known as Samhain in parts of Scotland, or Punkie Night in the West Country, but the most common was that it was carried by Catholics while begging for Soul Cakes. Then after the potato famine took many of the turnip carvers to America, they discovered the pumpkin as the ideal fruit for carving lanterns. Turnip lanterns were also used by pranksters, to carve a grotesque face and scare people on the night when ghosts and other spirits were said to be abroad. This may be more of an English than Irish custom, where it was sometimes known as Hoberdy’s Lantern. Others make a connection with will o’ the wisp, the strange flames sometimes seen in peat bogs.
I started carving pumpkins as soon as I was old enough to hold a knife. I don’t know how old I was for the first, but my first year in Primary School aged five someone brought in a carved turnip for Halloween, and I remember thinking how hard work it looked for a pathetically small result. Why didn’t they use a pumpkin like normal people? So I must have been pretty familiar with carved pumpkins! I stopped briefly as a student, and then took myself by surprise the next year by coming home with a pumpkin. I had missed the tradition, and wanted to carve one. Just a simple face…
Not long after, on a visit to America, I found a book with pumpkin carving pictures – with shadow images for the reverse side. I was inspired. Some carving tools were fashioned out of broken hacksaw blades, duck taped between lolly sticks, and I was away. They must be over fifteen years old now, but still doing good service.
I have probably now carved around thirty-five lanterns. The last few years have seen me move away from faces or clichéd scary images however. Samhain is generally celebrated as the Pagan New Year, with various rituals and traditions associated with it. Although it is known to some as the Day of the Dead it has positive connotations – such as remembering our ancestors and setting a place for them at the table. Not just ghosts to be scared of! So I now choose to carve images that mean something to me, from the year that is ending, to that which is coming. What has been and what I am grateful for, usually as the main image, and what I hope for over the coming year as a shadow, unformed image on the back.
A theme for me this year has been to celebrate trees, and publishing the first few tree stories I have written online. So I decided to carve a series of leaves around the pumpkin. Those for which I have completed stories at the front, those yet to be written in shadow, with various stages of transition in between. Having a small pumpkin meant I couldn’t fit all twenty, so I dowsed to find out which ones I should include for the year to come. I have made a note and will have to see if they are the important stories of the next year, or if I was completely wrong on some! But carving each leaf has brought me closer to them by making a connection with the trees, so it might prove to be self-fulfilling. Apologies for not taking a photo; none of my recent designs have been photographed, due in part to large holes in the wrong places showing the candle through, which upsets the light balance. Also pumpkin carving is one situation where you don’t get two goes at it – so it is the intention behind the design that counts more than the reality sometimes.
After our Samhain dinner in recent years I have used the pumpkin as a cauldron in a ritual to help me clear away what I do not wish to bring forward into the new year, ceremoniously burning in its flame what was holding me back in my life. Then I have asked mother Earth to transform the energies into something positive through the action of my compost heap. (Apart from the thinnings and trimmings, which get eaten for dinner of course!) But this year that seemed a negative approach, when I would rather focus on what I do want. So I am allowing the flame to bring transformation, taking in the warmth and light to see me through the dark evenings of autumn as I dream new dreams.