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The Story of Jack-O’-Lanterns and Halloween


I absolutely love going to the pumpkin patch. Even at 40 years old, I still can’t wait to go every October.

There is something about the sound of corn stalks rustling in the wind thick with the smell of fresh cut hay. Overdosing on sugar from caramel apples, candy corn and dark chocolate before a stop off at the farm animal petting zoo to visit a pygmy goat, south down sheep, and miniature donkey. Then, on to the field of green augmented by lumps of orange protruding from a sea of leaves. And finally, the exciting task of choosing the perfect pumpkin with a flat face and sinister looking stem for my Jack-O’-Lantern!

pumpkin patch
A visit to a pumpkin patch is one of my favorite traditions of fall.

As thousands of Americas engage in this odd ritual every year, it begs the question: why do we carve pumpkins at Halloween?

Halloween traditions are rooted in the 3,000 year-old Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “SOW-in”) that was held traditionally on November 1st in Ireland. The Irish word Samhain means “Summer’s End” as this end-of-the-harvest-beginning-of-winter celebration was marked by a time of disguise, feasting, bonfires, pranks, divination, and games (think apple bobbing). It was also a time of reverent celebration for the ancestors as it was believed that the veil between the physical and eternal worlds thinned allowing the souls of the departed to visit the living again. In the 7th century, Christian traditions were laid on top of this pagan holiday as the church declared November 1st “All Saints’ Day” or “All Hallows” making the night before “All-Hallows Eve” or Halloween and November 2nd “All Souls Day.”

pumpkin patch
April selecting her perfect pumpkin for carving!

As the Irish immigrated in large numbers to America in the 19th century, they brought modern versions of Halloween traditions that were soon adopted by the larger American society. Back home, the rural Irish would carve Jack-O’-Lanterns from root vegetables (particularly turnips) as pumpkins were not grown in Ireland at the time. With a ghoulish face carved and a hollowed out center illuminated with an ember, these “ghost turnips” were then carried by traveling people or placed on windowsills to help ward off unwanted spirits that may be active on Halloween night.

white pumpkin
Grown by Native Americans for centuries, squash and pumpkins are an indigenous crop of the Americas.

In America, “pumpkins” which is a common name Americans apply to many kinds of orange colored squash in the plant family Cucurbitaceae, were an indigenous crop developed over 10,000 thousands years ago by Native Americans who bred and selected wild species of gourds.  In fact, the word “squash” is derived from the Narragansett word “askutasquash” which means “eaten raw or uncooked.” When European colonist first arrived in the Americas during the 15th and 16th centuries, they were not too interested in the many varieties of pumpkins, yellow crooknecks, patty pans, Boston marrows and turban squash that Native Americans cultivated. However, after being given seed and shown how to grow squash by native peoples, these early settlers soon realized that squash’s storability was essential to feeding their families though harsh winters.  Squash and pumpkins were also used as edible mixing bowls, water containers, and for livestock feed. By the time the Irish and their Halloween traditions were spreading across the United States, pumpkins were widely grown by farmers and soon became the crop of choice for Jack-O’-Lanterns due to the ease of their carve-ability.

pumpkin arrangement
Although the Irish carved root vegetables back home, once in America pumpkins became the popular choice for Jack-O’-Lanterns.

But who was Jack and why did he need a lantern?

In Irish folklore, there are many stories about a mysterious drunkard and cheat named Stingy Jack who came to outwit the Devil on two occasions. On one occasion, when the Devil came to claim Jack for his immorality, he asked the Devil if he could go for one last drink. When it was time to pay up, Stingy Jack true to his name convinced the Devil to transform himself into money in order to settle the tab. As the Devil shapeshifted into coins, Jack cunningly placed his new found riches in his pocket next to a crucifix rending the Devil powerless. The Devil pleaded with Jack, asking him to let him go. However, Jack, knowing that the Devil would revenge him, made the Devil promise not to take his soul for another year. In the next year, Jack encountered the Devil again and this time tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree to harvest his last meal before being taken to Hell. While in the tree, Jack etched a cross in the tree’s trunk so that the Devil could not come down until he assured not to take Jack’s soul for another few years. Eventually, Jack died of natural causes but due to his sinful actions throughout his life, he was denied entry into Heaven. The Devil, too, angered by how Jack outsmarted him, forsaken his soul from Hell. As a result, the Devil damned Jack’s soul to wander aimlessly over the earth trapped in the physical world with only an ember lit with hellfire and housed in a turnip to light his way.

pumpkin carving
Carving my pumpkin… I may be a little too excited!

Throughout the centuries, sightings of Jack’s ghostly figure were called “Jack of the Lantern” – eventually being shortened to “Jack-O’-Lantern.” On really dark nights, sightings took the form of flashes of light over bogs- a visual phenomenon explained today by modern scientists as ignis fatuus or “foolish fire” thought to be caused by the chemical reactions of organic decay. At some point, the Irish took up the practice of craving their own turnips like Jack’s in hopes of scaring off Jack and other evil spirits from their homes. Today, unbeknown to many Americans, we continue this tradition. Gallivanting off to pumpkin patches in search of the best orange colored Cucurbit to carve before October 31st.

The tradition of carving Jack-O’-Lanterns is rooted in antiquity.

 Although it is fun to be immersed in all the costumes, candy, carving, and trick-or-treating this time of year, take a quiet moment in your garden to think of Jack, our ancestors and how we are still living out traditions rooted in antiquity.

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