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Why We Carve Pumpkins At Halloween

Updated on April 21, 2015

Halloween History

Why do we carve scary faces into pumpkins at Halloween and call them Jack-O-Lanterns anyway? The reason stretches back into the mists of time to the ancient Celtic religion.

Before it was Halloween, October 31st was the Pagan holiday of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), the official end of summer and the harvest season. Ancient Celts believed that at Samhain, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was extremely thin, allowing the dead to cross over into the world of the living. Sometimes they appeared as apparitions and sometimes in the form of animals, most particularly black cats. The living lit bonfires and dressed in costumes to confuse the spirits and keep them from re-entering the world.

When Christianity came to Ireland and Scotland, it simply co-opted the three day festival of Samhain and folded it into All Hallow's Eve, (October 31st), All Saints Day ( November 1st) and All Souls day. ( November 2nd) It was a perfect fit and the original Pagan Samhain blended seamlessly into the new Christian celebration. In most of Christian Europe, the emphasis ,was and still is, on All Saints Day, but in Ireland and Scotland, because of the Celtic past and the legacy of Samhain, All Hallows Eve, or Halloween became the big deal and various local traditions developed.

In Ireland children carved out potatoes or turnips as "Jack-O-Lanterns" and lighted them from the inside with candles. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack." who invited the Devil to have a drink with him and then didn't want to pay for his drink. It's a long story, but the bottom line is that Jack tricked the Devil into climbing up a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While the devil was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark so that the he could not come down until he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. Soon thereafter, Jack died and God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. So Jack was condemned to wander the earth between heaven and hell with only a burning piece of coal in a carved out turnip to light his way. If that is not an Irish story, I don't know what is.

It's a story that came to America with hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants in the mid nineteenth century. In America, pumpkins were cheaper and more readily available than turnips, but carving them and making them in to Jack-O-Lanterns lit by a candle inside became an American tradition as Halloween was enthusiastically adopted in the New World by people from every possible ethnic background. By the 1880's it had really caught on and had become part of the tapistry of American holiday traditions. Today, most think of Halloween as an American holiday and are unaware of the ancient old world roots of the carved pumpkins that are a traditional part of the celebration. So now you know why we carve pumpkins at Halloween. It's all because of the ancient Celts and their Irish descendants who came to America.

More About Pumpkins

Pumpkins are native to North America and are believed to have originated some 5,000 years ago. References to pumpkins go back centuries. It is thought that French explorers in the New World came upon them and called them "pompon" English colonists in America corrupted the French to "pumpkin. "

Native Americans cultivated the pumpkin for centuries and it was a staple of their diet. Soon after Europeans arrived in the New World, they copied their Indian neighbers, growing and eating pumpkins in a wide variety of ways. It is thought that the origin of that American specialty, pumpkin pie, comes from early colonists who cut the top off a large pumpkin, scooped out the seeds and filled the interior with milk, honey and spices, baking the whole thing in the ashes of a dying fire. Don't know if this is true or not, but it does make a nice story I think.

Pumpkins are technically a fruit, not a vegetable. Pumpkins, like gourds, and other varieties of squash are all members of the Cucurbitacae family , which also includes cucumbers, gherkins, and melons. Pumpkins will grow almost anywhere, even in the Arctic. and in North America are harvested in October, which makes them the perfect fruit for Halloween  and for Jack O'Lanterns.


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    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 6 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks kittyjj-- I'm not very good at carving pumpkins myself and now that my kids are grown don't do it very often, but I do like to eat them and I am a great fan of pumpkin pie:-) thanks for commenting and for following me. Welcome to Hubpages.

    • kittyjj profile image

      Ann Leung 6 years ago from San Jose, California

      I love your video. And the last pumpkin sure looks scary. I don't know how to carve a pumpkin. The pumpkin we got for last year Halloween is still siting by the front door without a face.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 6 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Well, happy halloween, vendetta and I'm really pleased that you liked the hub. Don't feel bad-- we steal everybody's holidays and Americanize them LOL I'm not sure the Americanization is an improvement but never mind. Thanks for stopping by and reading and commenting.

    • VendettaVixen profile image

      VendettaVixen 6 years ago from Ireland

      Fantastic hub, I must say.

      Tut tut, you Americans stealing our holiday! Just kidding of course - the more the merrier.

      You guys do a better job of celebrating it, anyway. It's just kind of pathetic over here in Ireland.

      I really enjoyed the origin story. I remember reading a fictional short similar to it, written in Irish. I wonder if the author got their inspiration from the Jack-o-lantern story.

      You really did an excellent job here, and I especially liked the first link at the very end - the pumpkin carving site. I just spent 45 minutes carving different faces!

      Keep it up~

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 7 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks UW for stopping by-- always good to meet someone else who does not like pumpkin pie:-)

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 7 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      I don't like pumpkin pie either :) Excellent hub.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks ag-- I'm not so fond of pumpkin myself. I don't even like pumpkin pie that much shhhhh don't tell anyone OK?

      Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to read and comment

    • agvulpes profile image

      Peter 8 years ago from Australia

      robie2, now there is another question answered to cross off my 'find out' list. This is not only a great explanation but it is a great fun Hub to go with it:-)

      btw, i don't like the taste of pumpkin, except when my wife cooks it in Pumpkin soup!

      Thumbs up :-)

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      I think Halloween is more Scottish and Irish-- not sure about Wales-- think I'll go try and track it down. Interesting question

    • Lady Guinevere profile image

      Debra Allen 8 years ago from West By God

      I never knew about the legend of the Jack o lantern. Nice hub. Celtic aslo is Welsh and do you have any stories about them like this?

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Me too Sweetie Pie and I love Jack O lanterns too. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 8 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I remember winning the most scary jack-o-lantern prize for a contest we had in sixth grade. It was fun designing and picking out the accessorizes for that jack-o-lantern. One of the things I love about Halloween are all the fun craft activities.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks Robert and Happy Halloween:-)

    • profile image

      Robert Ballard 8 years ago

      I always wondered why we made Jack O Lanterns, now I know. Thanks. Great hub.

      Robert Elias Ballard

    • magdielqr profile image

      magdielqr 8 years ago

      Nice and informative Hub

    • profile image

      Pachuca213 8 years ago

      I have read different versions of the Jack-O-Lantern story, all pretty much with the same ending of Jack wandering the world between heaven and hell with the turnip. It is interesting how the story changed into Pumpkins later isn't it? I really enjoyed reading your wonderfully written hub about the history of Pumpkin carving on Halloween!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hello articleposter and Mardi-- so glad you like the hub. I was fascinated by the origins of Jack o lanterns and Halloween myself. I kind of like that we are carrying on an ancient religious tradition from the Celts

    • Mardi profile image

      Mardi Winder-Adams 8 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Wow, amazing what we don't know about everyday stuff. Thanks for this hub I am sending it on to my nieces!

    • articleposter profile image

      articleposter 8 years ago


      Good read that was, and nice video too. Now we know :D

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hi Dolores-- I love Jack-O-Lanterns too. Thanks for stoopping by:-)

      and Sally-- I'll be waiting for that November report LOL

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      My costume this year? Sarah Palin? LOL. I wonder how many young girls will be showing up at my house for trick or treat in a Sarah costume. I'll give you the full report in November.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Well, it won't be long til Halloween and now I'll know the story behind the Jack-O-Lantern. I love Jack'O'Lanterns. Too bad they get so funky so fast.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hi Sally and thanks for the warm welcome-- good to see you too. So what is your costume this year? I'm thinking Sarah Palin :-) Glad you liked the hub. I enjoyed writing it I must say.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Robie, Robie, Robie, so nice to see you back.

      You know you and I have a special love for Halloween. But you always amaze me by what you know that I don't. Thanks so much for enlightening me about a pumpkin being a fruit. So when are they going to put pieces of it into a "Fruit Today" drink, the hottest new way to get at least 20% of your daily f & v requirements? LOL.

      Wonderful Hub...getting my decorations out now.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      And thank you, Ks, for taking the time to read and comment:-)

    • profile image

      KsCharles 8 years ago

      How delightful! I never knew all this! I've always enjoyed Halloween and love the little goblins coming around now, but I'll enjoy it even more after learning of the origin. Thank you!!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hi Desert Blondie-- good to see you. Thanks for stoopping by and happy Halloween:-)

    • desert blondie profile image

      desert blondie 8 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

      Learned something here! Knew about the European All Saints DAy (and night before as Hallowed Eve)...but had thought pumpkins uniquely USA touch. Interesting, as always with your hubs!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks Info Help. I love Halloween too so Happy Halloween and happy pumpkin carving:-)

    • Info Help profile image

      Info Help 8 years ago from Chicago

      Great Hub! Halloween is a favorite holiday in my household, and we love to carve pumpkins. I learned something new from this hub, keep up the great writing!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hello Aya. Glad you enjoyed the hub

      Hi Alekhouse.Pleased to meet you:-) Isn't that pumpkin carvins site fun? I'm flattered to have you as a fan of the packrat and I'm off to join your hubpages fan club and read up on you right now:-)

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 8 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Thanks for an informative and fun hub. I gravitated to a carve-a-pumpkin on line site by clicking on your first link and couldn't stop carving!.

      BTW, wanted to tell you that I went to your PoliticalPackRat site and I plan to go there on a regular basis. I like your articles, your perspective, and your writing style. I'm a PoliticalPackRat fan from now on.

    • Aya Katz profile image

      Aya Katz 8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Robie2, I enjoyed this insight into the origin of Halloween and of Jack O Lanterns!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      thanks paraglider--nice to be back and see old friends. Decided hubs are for evergreen and am confining my political rants to LOL So I'll probably be a bit calmer on hubpages, but here from time to time nonetheless:-)

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Blogging, eh? I had wondered if we were going to see you here again. Welcome back!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Paper Moon-- thanks for stopping by and thanks for that information about arctic pumpkins. Didn't know that.

      Lelanew55-- glad you like the huband I'm going right over to your profile to read yours and fan you :-)

      Paraglider-- how lovely to see you. this is my first hub in six months--been busy blogging-- but nice to be back. And interesting info on the turnips( we call the Rutabagas here-- don't know why) Nice to have my online research confirmed LOL

      {{{{Trish}}}} nice to see you too and thanks for the memories--I used to go trick or treating with a pillowcase and back then it was safe enough for a group of us to go around the neighborhood without adult supervision. No haunted houses though:-)

    • trish1048 profile image

      trish1048 8 years ago

      Robie! How good to see you!

      I too love Halloween. I have wonderful memories of sitting at our kitchen table and carving the pumpkins. My mom would often make pumpkin pies with the fresh pumpkin. There was a point in time when my mom was hospitalized, and all she wanted to eat was pumpkin pie. She had her friend bring her a pie every day, and she ate every last morsel. When she was released, she looked pregnant LOL. She had to have put on about a good five or six pounds. My mom was a petite woman, so that much weight just made her tummy pretty large in comparison.

      My brother and I would go out trick or treating and fill up our pillowcases. We'd then go home, empty it out, and go out again. Perhaps this old tradition started me on my tendency to gain weight LOL. Not really, but I'd like to blame something :)

      There were two old houses in my town that were thought to be haunted, or, at the very least, had some sort of ghoul living in it. At one house, we'd run up the steps and ring the bell, then take off running for fear of being grabbed by some monster. The other house sat behind an iron fence. It was a very dark setting as it sat among many trees, which made it hard to see the old Victorian house. The property had cement statuary near the gated entrance, and often we'd see a light flickering through the trees. Needless to say, none of us ever attempted getting onto the property. We'd stay just long enough to let our imaginations go crazy then take off running, for fear the ghosts and goblins would surely spot us, or even worse, capture us and take us in to the scary house.

      Fun memories :)

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Hi Robie - In Scotland, we always used to carve turnips - the very big ones that are called swedes elsewhere. The smell of burning turnip always takes me back to that time. We used pumpkins later, in England, with our own kids. They are far easier to carve than turnips but don't smell half so good!

      Enjoyed reading this one :)

    • lelanew55 profile image

      lelanew55 8 years ago

      HI Robie2.

      I am one of your newer fans. This is another great hub on Halloween one of my favorite holidays. I love the Irish story. Happy Haloween.

    • Paper Moon profile image

      Paper Moon 8 years ago from In the clouds

      Thank you for sharing.

      The long days in the arctic make for the biggest pumpkins.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Me too-- regarding the pie. the pickle was kind of a sweet and sour-- very tasty, too.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Hello Rochelle and thanks for dropping by. I've been so absent from hubpages for the last six months or so that if feels really good to be back and I'm glad you like the Halloween hub. I love Halloween and jackolanterns and pumpkins -- never heard of a pumpkin pickle but did find out in my research that pumpkins are related to cucumbers which makes the kin to pickles too I guess..... whatever. I'll stick to the pumkin pie:-)

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Very interesting, well-written hub. Some of the info was new to me-- even though it is old.

      I love pumpkin pie, my favorite! My husband's mother made a pumpkin pickle called "kirbes" or something, that was quite tasty.

      (Dogs ages are shorter than ours)

      But I had a brother-in-law who could not stand pumpkin anything. When he was a child during WW II, the only plentiful food was pumpkin. He was sick of it, and never indulged in this wonderful fruit in any form.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Well hello Frieda and thanks for stopping by-- I had the same thought that it would be fun to put milk and spices in a hollowed out pumpkin-- not sure how I feel about cooking it in the embers of a fire though-- think in the oven might be better-- Happy Halloween:-)

      And hi Jama-- yup my first hub in a dog's age and I'm just getting in the mood for Halloween

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 8 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Yay! A Halloween hub! Bravo!!

    • Frieda Babbley profile image

      Frieda Babbley 8 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

      They'll even grow in the artic? Amazing. I love this article! I want to carve a pumpkin like that last one with the pumpkin in it's mouth, lol. I'm certain it's not easy, but how very clever. I don't know if that story about the precursor to pumpkin pies, but I'd like to try that with some smaller pumpkins. I suppose you could do it acorn squash style. Yum! Well, I had wonderful read and learned much about something I thought I knew much more than most about. Think I'll pass this along. =D

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Glad you liked it Simey and Happy Halloween:-)

    • SimeyC profile image

      Simon Cook 8 years ago from NJ, USA

      Nice and informative Hub - my daughter is a Pagan so she's told me all about how we're copying her beliefs! Very well presented hub - thanks for sharing!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 8 years ago from Central New Jersey

      Thanks Steph. I'm a Halloween fan too-- loved trick or treating as a kid and now love to hand out candy to the little ones who come to my door. I never knew how much history was woven into this holiday or the ancient celtic connection-- find it fascinating

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 8 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      I love, love, LOVE Halloween (perhaps its because my oldest was born on Oct. 31). This is a great, fun hub and very instructive. I think Matt will enjoy it almost as much as I did. Happy Carving.... :)


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