One of the classic images of Halloween: a grinning, glowing face, carved from pumpkin. But why? What inspired people to take their artistic impulses out on some vegetables? And why do we carve pumpkins in particular?
History of Halloween
If you’re familiar with the history of Halloween you already know it’s a blend of old Celtic and Christian traditions. The holiday is supposed to represent a time when spirits are likely to roam the earth. Unsurprisingly, jack o’lanterns also hearken back to these Celtic roots through an old Celtic myth about a wandering spirit known as Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack was sometimes known as a blacksmith, but more importantly, he was a trickster.
In particular, Stingy Jack was known for tricking the devil himself. Some versions involve him tricking the devil over and over, others get right to the conclusion after one trick. But the trick generally ends with the same bargain.
In one popular version, Stingy Jack convinced the devil to climb a tree for a piece of fruit. While he was in the tree, Jack quickly trapped him in the branches, by either carving a cross into the bark, or laying multiple crosses out surrounding the tree. Jack then negotiates that he’ll free the devil if he’s promised that his soul will not be taken to hell when he dies. The devil agrees, and Jack frees him.
When Jack eventually dies, he arrives at the gates of heaven, but is denied entrance. He visits Hell, but according to the deal made during his life, he doesn’t have to enter. Instead he is trapped between, with nowhere for his soul to settle. The devil gives him an ember to light his way, and Jack puts it within a hollowed out radish, which he uses as a lamp.
He then wanders the world with his lamp, becoming known under the name “Jack of the Lantern” and then eventually “Jack O’Lantern”.
The tradition of carving lanterns then developed out of this story. In different interpretations, the lanterns have represented souls trapped in purgatory, wards against evil, or just simple scary props.
America, Autumn, Pumpkins
The reason this tradition starts with turnips rather than the classic pumpkin is simple – pumpkins originate in America. Early Halloween revelers wouldn’t have had access. Immigrants to the New World discovered pumpkins after settling in America, however, and their potential for carving became obvious.
Despite the practice’s European origins, Americans have become some of the most enthusiastic pumpkin carvers in the world. World records for the biggest jack o’lantern ever carved, the most jack o’lanterns ever lit in one place, and the fastest pumpkins carved all belong to Americans.