Where Did the Idea of Carving Pumpkins Come From Anyway?
The Month of October
The month of October brings many things: crisp evenings, colorful leaves, abundant harvests, and, of course, Halloween. This ancient holiday, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, is celebrated in many cultures worldwide with festivals and parties, costumes and masks, and candy and trick-or-treating for the little ones.
Carved pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns, also have their place among the festivities, and these artistic creations are enjoyed by young and old alike, and range from simple grinning faces to elaborate designs and pictures. But where did the idea of carving pumpkins come from anyway?
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Meet Mister Jack
The history of the jack-o-lantern stems from an Irish folktale that told the story of a man known as Stingy Jack. Not very well-liked among his neighbors, Jack was a mean drunkard that took pleasure in playing tricks on others.
Jack’s bad reputation was known far and wide, and eventually even the Devil himself got wind of it. Wanting to see for himself if Jack lived up to the rumors, the Devil met Jack one night wandering drunk in the countryside. Recognizing the Devil and realizing that his time was up, Jack made a final request of Lucifer. He asked if he could have one last drink before being carried off to Hell.
The Devil agreed, and they went to a local pub where Jack indulged in pint after pint of ale. When he finished, he asked the Devil to pay the tab. Surprised, Lucifer nonetheless conceded to pay and transformed himself into a silver coin.
What he didn’t know, however, was that Jack was sneakier than he thought. Jack picked up the coin which embodied the Devil, and he placed it in his wallet, which also held a crucifix. Trapped by the cross, the Devil was unable to change back into his true form. In exchange for his freedom, the Devil agreed to grant Jack ten more years of life before coming back to claim his soul.
Ten Years Later...
At the end of ten years, the Devil once again appeared to Jack, and Jack once again relied on his own cunning and deceitful nature to escape Lucifer’s clutches. Just before he was to be taken to Hell, Jack asked the Devil if he could eat one last apple.
The Devil again foolishly agreed and climbed an apple tree to fetch the fruit for Jack. Once he was up the tree, Jack immediately surrounded the tree with crosses, trapping the Devil high in its branches. Tricked again, the Devil relented and consented to never take Jack’s soul through the Gates of Hell.
The End of Jack
When Jack’s time on Earth came to its natural end, he found himself stuck. Unable to enter Heaven and with the Devil upholding his promise not to take Jack’s soul into Hell, Jack was left in between the planes of good and evil.
The Devil did give Jack an ember from the fires of Hell, which Jack placed in a carved out turnip. He used this lantern to light his way as he searched for a final resting place, but he was doomed to endlessly wander the Earth with his glowing lantern.
The End... Or Is It?
Such is the history of the jack-o-lantern. People began carving their own lanterns and placing them on their doorsteps to ward off Jack and other evil spirits that may be lurking about. Interestingly, pumpkins were not the traditional vegetable that was selected for carving jack-o-lanterns.
In past centuries, turnips (like Jack’s), cabbage plants, beets and other gourds were used for carving jack-o-lanterns, particularly in European countries. Pumpkins, however, proved easier to carve and were readily available in North America.
The Tradition Today
Today, the tradition of the jack-o-lantern continues, though much of the superstition about evil and wandering spirits is gone. Jack-o-lanterns are a Halloween tradition enjoyed by both children and adults, and they are prized for this as well as for their artistic merit.
This Hallow’s Eve, when you see a jack-o-lantern lighted on a neighborhood doorstep, take a closer look and remember the legend behind the lantern. Be careful, though, as Stingy Jack may be lurking with his own jack-o-lantern in the shadows…
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