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History of Pumpkin Carving and Jack o' Lanterns

Updated on September 18, 2008

I grew up in the Northeast USA, where pumpkin carving was a MASSIVE Halloween tradition. Over here in Europe, people look at me like I’m an idiot when I tell them I want to cut a pumpkin up and stick a candle in it. At least, I hope that’s why they look at me like I’m an idiot – hard to know what these Europeeps are thinking. I was once asked why we (Americans) do this every October, and I realized I actually didn’t know. My answer was something along the lines of, “Well, cos we do.” Hmm. I may have just discovered the reason behind the aforementioned look.. Well, in case you’re clueless like I was, let me just fill you in on why we do it.

Where did all this start?

First, let’s mention that the idea of carving lanterns out of vegetables originated in Europe. Specifically, Scotland and Ireland. Which makes sense, considering the legend of Jack o’ Lantern started out with Stingy Jack – an Irishman.

Jack was cheap, eh?

Well.. yeah. I doubt he was a real person, however, so don’t get too upset about it. Legend says he was having a drink with the Devil and then refused to cough up his share of the check. He convinces the devil to turn himself into a coin, and once in that form, Jack puts him in his pocket. Seems Stingy Jack had a cross in there, which then made the Devil powerless. Before Jack released him, he made the Devil promise not to claim his soul.

So Jack was sly, eh?

Actually, I’m more inclined to think the Devil a total fool. If he could turn himself into a coin, surely he could have turned something else into a coin, and just paid for the drinks? Jack probably would have made a nice sized purse!

Well, he was sly enough to get away with it!

Depends on how you look at it – he saved his soul from the Devil, but God didn’t want him after that, either. So he was cursed to wander the earth in darkness. When Jack asked the Devil how he’d be able to find his way around, the Devil chucked him an ember from the eternal fire. I think we can all imagine how hot that would have been to hold, so Jack promptly carved a hole into a turnip and dropped his little light into it.

Sorry, did you say turnip?

Yeah. Sorry. If it were my legend, it would sound a lot better, I promise.

So what’s this to do with pumpkins, then?

It seems that people in Ireland and Scotland started carving faces into all kinds of vegetables, in order to keep ol’ Jack away – and other spirits, too. When these peeps emigrated to the USA, they brought their veggies along. No, I’m kidding. They got new ones – and discovered pumpkins were particularly well suited for scary faces and candles.

How long has it been associated with Halloween?

Wikipedia claims since 1866. I wasn’t there, however, so I can’t verify that claim. It would seem, however, a logical conclusion as the scary face thing does seem to go well with the general scary theme we associate with Halloween.

And there you are - the history of the Jack o' Lantern!


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