Texas & The Halloween Tale

There's an old Irish legend that came to Texas with some of its earliest settlers about a certain kind of squash that sells by the ton every fall. We’re talking about pumpkins, of course. Or, to native Texans like myself, punkins.

Before I tell you about that old legend though, there's an interesting puzzle of geographic names to consider. We'll call it "The Punkin Center Phenomenon." If anyone ever informs you they’re from Punkin Center, you'll need to ask them to be more specific. Unique as that name might seem, Texas has four different communities called Punkin Center. There’s Punkin Center in Dawson County, Punkin Center in Eastland County, Punkin Center in Hardeman County and Punkin Center in Parker County. And in Wichita County, the community of Haynesville is locally known as Punkin Center even though Haynesville is the official name.

Across the United States, four other communities call themselves Punkin Center. But unlike Texas,  each of those Punkin Centers is in a different state – Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana and Missouri. Strange as the name Punkin Center may seem, it is the 4,438th most popular town name in the U.S.

Texas singer David Allen Coe likes the name. In 1976, he recorded a song called “The Punkin Center Barn Dance.”

But there’s a weird thing about Punkin Centers in Texas. None of them are in counties known for their bountiful pumpkin crops. Floyd County has an annual Punkin Festival but no community named Punkin Center and it is the top pumpkin-producing county in Texas. Other bountiful producers of pumpkins are Bailey, Hale, Lamb and Lubbock counties. Texas, number 1 in terms of number of Punkin Centers, only ranks in the Top 10 of pumpkin-producing states. The estimated value of Texas’ annual pumpkin harvest is $4.6 million. That's a lot of punkins. And it brings us back to that old Irish folktale. 

Back in the 18th century, an Irishman named Jack had an unfortunate propensity for strong, adult beverage. But he didn't let his drinking get in the way of his hatred of the Devil. One dark night after his usual visitation of the local pub, Jack was staggering his way home when the Devil approached him and tried to trick him into giving away his soul. But old Jack was wise to the tricks of that demon and used his own trick into getting the devil to climb up an apple tree. 

Once Jack had the Devil treed, he quickly drew his knife and carved a cross on the trunk, an action he knew would prevent the Devil from climbing down. The Devil pleaded for his freedom and he and Jack finally struck a deal. If Jack would let him down, the Devil promised to never come after Jack's soul again. That seemed like a good trade so Jack covered the cross and the Devil was free to return to his normal level of devilment.

Unfortunately for Jack, his deal with the Devil did not include immortality. When Jack died, his hard drinking, skirt chasing, lie telling and other issues we won't mention sent his spirit down instead of up.

The Devil proved true to his word and refused to allow Jack into the nether regions. But Jack didn't qualify for Heaven either so his spirit was doomed to wander forever between Heaven and Hell.

It's dark between Heaven and Hell so the Devil graciously threw a glowing coal to Jack so he could find his way around. Jack placed the red hot coal in a hollowed gourd to make himself a lantern. And to this very day, Jack wanders to and fro, neither in Heaven nor Hell, his way lighted by that enduring symbol of Halloween, the Jack-O-Lantern.