Why We Carve Pumpkins at Halloween

The Origins of the Jack O’ Lantern

Country folk and most likely the older ruling classes as well carved scary faces into squash and turnips for several hundred years. It’s only been since the first settlers that came to America from Europe that pumpkins were substituted for the root vegetables once used. But how did this tradition ever get started?

A Very Brief Rundown on Halloween’s Origins

In the last one-hundred years on October 31st, almost everyone eagerly anticipates Halloween. It’s fun times for all! However, most aren’t aware of the darker origins of this holiday and why we have it. In a nutshell, the day we now know as Halloween culminated from a combination of the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), the Roman celebration of Feralia, the passing of the dead, and the Christian, Night before All Saints’ Day called ‘Hallowmas.’

The Jack O’ Lantern Myth

The practice of carving vegetables and lighting candles in them allegedly originated from an Irish myth about a shady individual nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” It’s claimed that on one particular night, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his bottle, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack put the money into his pocket next to a silver cross. This was supposed to prevent the Devil from changing back into his usual devilish appearance. Sometime later, Jack freed the Devil but played trick several more times.

When Jack eventually died, it was said that God would not allow such a despicable man into heaven and Jack was barred from entering through the Pearly Gates. The Devil, angered by the tricks Jack had played on him, would not let Jack into Hell. Instead, the Devil dispatched Jack into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack, not wanting to lose his precious light, put the coal into a carved-out turnip and it’s said he has been haplessly roaming the Irish landscapes ever since. As the Irish often do, they began to refer to Jack’s ghost as “Jack of the Lantern,” soon to be shortened to “Jack O ‘Lantern.”

19th Century carved turnip on display in the Museum of Country Life, County Mayo.

In Ireland and Scotland, and even spilling into Britain, people began making their own version of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips, squash, or potatoes and placing them into window sills or outside of doorways to “frighten away” Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. Families coming to America carried with them the tradition of the Jack O’ Lantern when they immigrated. They quickly discovered that pumpkins, a fruit native to the United States, make the perfect Jack ‘O Lantern and quickly dispensed with turnips and the like to carve the frightful faces that would ward off evil on Halloween night. As time passed, the idea of roaming evil spirits was replaced by our pop culture ideas of ghosts, vampires, and cute little witches with pointy hats.

Today, children and adults hardly think of how the carving of pumpkins at Halloween time came to be. They just know that it’s a required part of this fun holiday to carve out pumpkins and create the scariest or most artistic faces possible, The comes the placing of a candle (or nowadays a battery light) into the pumpkins to illuminate that creepy grin. Of course, all this comes with the donning of costumes with masks (another Celt tradition), trick o’ treating for candy, and sometimes mischievous doings. I wonder what Stingy Jack thinks about all of this!