Thank God for pumpkins!

If it wasn't for them, we'd be making jack-o'-lanterns from turnips, beets or potatoes.

Historians say those were the first jack-o'-lanterns centuries ago in Ireland.

Pumpkin-patch.com says Halloween dates back at least 3,000 years to the Celtic New Year's celebration of Samhain (pronounced "sow-ain"), which began at sundown on Oct. 31.

It was a time, Celts believed, when the spirits of the dead returned to visit their homes.

The site says, "On this magical night, glowing jack-o'-lanterns, carved from turnips or gourds, were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against malevolent spirits."

"The jack-o'-lantern is at least 2,000 years old," Witchway.net says. "The first were made in Ireland and were simple faces carved in turnips, which could be easily carried if one needed to travel during the night."

Sort of a primitive flashlight with a face.

There's also a legend about a drunken Irish blacksmith called "Stingy Jack," who was said to have tricked the devil into a deal to keep him from getting Jack's soul.

So, to get even, when Jack died, the devil turned him away from hell and God would not accept him in heaven.

And Jack was left to roam the earth for eternity, with only a glowing lump of coal from hell inside a turnip to light his way.

Essortment.com says: "The fear of souls like Jack's venturing back to the warmth of their previous homes on Halloween spawned a custom that is carried on today. Originally, Irish villagers, concerned about the possibility of visits from past occupants, would dress in costume to frighten away ghosts."

It says they "also left food outside the door to appease the spirits and carved or painted faces on turnips, potatoes, rutabagas or beets to place in windows or doors in order to chase away ghosts with the symbol of a damned soul."

Other sites say that the food was left for the friendly souls of departed family members who returned that night.

Either way, it's the origin of trick-or-treating.

It wasn't until Irish settlers came to the United States in droves during the Great Potato Famine in the mid-1800s that the pumpkin found its role in Halloween, historians say.

The big gourds, which apparently have been around for at least 9,000 years in North America, made much better jack-o'-lanterns than turnips, the Irish decided.

So, when you're carving a jack-o'-lantern this year, just be glad you're not trying to make it from a turnip.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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