We’re all familiar with the Jack-O-Lantern, a carved pumpkin associated with Halloween. We enjoy their elaborate faces and the flickering candle light emerging. But do you know how the tradition emerged?
Why do we carve pumpkins?
The tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns stems from an Irish myth about Stingy Jack. He was widely known as a drunk and master manipulator. The Devil found out about Jack and wanted to see for himself. When Stingy Jack realized that he had met the Devil, he asked for one last drink before he met his doom. The Devil allowed it, but Jack didn’t have any money to pay for it. So Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin. Instead of paying the bartender, Jack pocketed the coin with a silver cross that prevented the Devil to change forms. Jack eventually freed the Devil on the condition that he not claim Jack if he dies and not disturb him for a while. When the deal expired, the Devil met Jack again. This time, Jack asked for an apple. As the Devil climbed the tree to get it, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so that the Devil could not descend. Jack secured a promise not to bother him again for ten years.
When Stingy Jack died, God would not allow him into heaven because of his actions. The Devil would not let Jack into hell. So Jack was forced to wander the planet with a burning coal from the Devil that he put in a turnip to light his way. Stingy Jack became known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O’Lantern.
In ancient times, bonfires were used to ward off evil spirits at the beginning of the dark season. As people moved to cities, they placed the fire inside turnips or gourds, which were cheap and safe, and could be pierced to emit the light and scare off the evil spirits. People did not want Stingy Jack and other evil spirits near their home. The tradition of carving the gourds emerged over time. Perhaps people thought that scary faces would better ward off the Jack and the spirits. And burning coal would eventually be replaced by candles.
In America, turnips and gourds were not readily available to the settlers. So they turned to pumpkins instead, which turned out to make great jack o’lanterns.
Whether the legend of Stingy Jack developed before or after the first lit turnips, we do not know. And whether this or another version of the story (where Jack convinces the Devil to turn into a coin to pay some villagers who are chasing him for stolen goods) is the accurate one we do not know. But it does make for a great explanation to the tradition and a scary Halloween story!
In Scotland and Ireland, turnips, cabbages and potatoes were used. In England, beets. Gourds have also been used.
Over the years, the images carved into the pumpkins have become more elaborate. World records related to pumpkins have been set – 30,919 jack-o-lanterns carved and lit in one place at the same time. As well as the world’s largest Jack-O-Lantern, which was carved by Larry Checkon in 2005.