Pumpkin carving: The history of the jack-o’-lantern

Take some of the scare out of Halloween and research the history and legends of this fall tradition of carving pumpkins. Youth can gain a cultural education from a jack-o’-lantern.

Halloween will soon be upon us and provide a great opportunity for youth cultural education. As jack-o’-lanterns are being carved, take the educational opportunity to learn about the Irish legend of this now American traditional activity. In an October 2012 Michigan State University Extension article, “Global traditions connection and education: Halloween,” some history on this colorful fall celebration was provided.

The time of year between fall and winter, life and death, plenty and scarceness, Halloween is a time of celebration and fantasy. In searching for the origins of the jack-o’-lantern, you have to first gather a little insight to the origins of the fall season tradition. You can find many stories of the origin of Halloween that goes back thousands of years. The end of the harvest season in ancient fifth century BC Celtic Ireland, "Samhain" (sow-in), the word for summer’s end, is said to be the beginning of the current celebration. When you follow the journey throughout the centuries, you will find names like “All Hallows Eve,” “All Saints Day” or “All Hallows Day,” “Hallowmas” (Hallow – Holy or Saintly – mas – mass of the saints) to early 20th century American “Halloween.”

So how and why did the carving of pumpkins become a part of Halloween? How did the jack-o'-lantern become a part of this tradition of costumes and sweet treats? Where did the name jack-o'-lantern come from? The legend that has been told references a man named “Stingy Jack” and goes back to when the Irish immigrants came to the United States due to the potato famine many years ago. Jack was known as a trickster that fooled the devil a couple of times, making the devil promise to not bother him for over 10 years and upon his death to not take his soul. Upon Jack’s death, the devil kept his promise and did not take his soul; unfortunately, God would not allow such an unsavory into heaven. The devil sent Jack into the dark with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a turnip he was eating and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish children would put a piece of glowing coal in a carved potato, turnip or beet to commemorate this Irish trickster of the devil.

Other stories told say that in Ireland and Scotland, the people created their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips, rutabagas or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. The English immigrants to the United States found that the Native American variety of pumpkins made perfect lanterns once carved rather than the large beets.

The story is told in many forms with a similar result of Jack having to roam the world with his gourd coal-burning lantern lighting his way into the darkness. He was known as “Jack of the Lantern” and then to today’s known “jack-o’-lantern.”

What other cultural stories or legends can be found in relation to the carving of pumpkins during Halloween? Ignite youth’s creative mind and explore this legend that has become traditional around the world. Researching these questions of why the carving of pumpkins to create creative faces glowing in the night provides fodder for a great educational and cultural conversation to have with youthful inquiring minds.

This article was sparked due to a recent interview from a question asked by Jodi Henke, the writer and host of the national radio program called “Living the Country Life.” Henke asked about jack-o'-lanterns to include in the segment called "History of Halloween Traditions" that will be airing the week of Oct. 26, 2015.

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