photo by Beth Teutschmann on Unsplash

Thanksgiving has its turkey. Christmas has its tree. For Halloween, the universal symbol of the season is the jack-o’-lantern. This is the carved pumpkin that comes in all shapes and sizes. Each year, intrepid artists of all skill levels create fantastic carved pumpkins.

Sadly, the art produced from these pumpkins is fleeting. Every pumpkin is going to rot and that means good-bye to the jack-o’-lantern. This year, as you set about scooping out pumpkin guts and carving your pumpkin face you might be interested to find out just where this tradition got started. It turns out, it has been going on a long time.

Early Lampshades

A pumpkin is a gourd and that makes it a vegetable. According to anthropologists, vegetable carving has been going on for a very long time. Over 700 years ago, the Maori could hollow out gourds and carve them up to use as lantern. In fact, the Maori word for gourd is a version of “lampshade.” This form of carving was more practical than seasonal. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the jack-o’-lantern became
associated with Halloween.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

Jack-o’-lanterns got their Halloween start back in 19th century Ireland. This was when the legend of Stingy Jack was born. As the story goes, there was a man named Jack who got into a drinking contest with the devil at a pub.

When Jack couldn’t come up

With the money to pay his drinks, he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that would let Jack buy drinks for the night. The devil obliged but instead of paying for the drinks, Jack pocketed the coin and kept the devil trapped. A year later, Jack offered to let the devil free only if he promised not to take his soul upon his death. The devil agreed. Jack went on to lead of life of petty crime. When he did die, he was refused entry into heaven and the devil turned him away from the “other place.” Instead, the
devil gave Jack a piece of coal to roam the country looking for a place to rest his soul.

The Halloween Tradition

That story morphed into the tradition of carving up a pumpkin and lighting it with a candle to keep the evil spirits away. When the Irish migrated to America, they brought the legend and the tradition with them. Since Halloween is supposedly when the “dead walk the earth,” it would make sense that you would want to carve out a pumpkin to and put it on the porch to keep the walking dead away from the house.Interestingly, carved pumpkins with candles were also once part of many harvest festivals. There were considered the perfect decorations for Thanksgiving. The jack-o’-
lantern was also part of Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hallow.” Although in the actual story, the only mention of a pumpkin was the smashed one that was found by the missing Ichabod Crane’s hat. That was enough for Disney to be inspired to use the flaming jack-o’-lantern as the head for the Headless Horseman.

Today, jack-o’-lanterns are as much a part of Halloween as candy corn and bats.