Carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns is a pretty common traditional across the United States. Most parents start teaching their kids to carve pumpkins when they’re young, and this tradition is continued year after year. Some faces are scary, while other are comical, but candles or battery-powered lights are always placed inside so the pumpkins’ faces light up on Halloween night. How did this unique tradition start, and why is it so popular?
Experts believe that the practice of carving pumpkins can be traced back to the early world. Thousands of years ago, ancient people used to hollow out gourds and use them as lanterns. Later on, in the 1800s, the Irish put a different spin on this practice when they started carving faces into hollowed-out turnips. These carved turnips were meant to ward off evil spirits and the souls of the dead. The Irish called their carved-out turnips jack-o-lanterns, and examples of them can still be seen in museums today.
So, when did the term “jack-o-lantern” begin referring to pumpkins, rather than turnips? Well, that achievement can be credited to the North Americans. It’s thought that the tradition of carving pumpkins began in the 1700s simply because pumpkins were more common and easier to come by in the U.S. and Canada. Their larger size also made them easier to carve than turnips. Still, they were used for the same general purpose: to place on porches to ward off evil spirits on Halloween.
Throughout the 1800s, however, the practice of carving pumpkins began to evolve into more of an entertainment-related endeavor rather than a serious means of protecting souls. Pumpkins were often carved throughout the harvest season, not just on Halloween. Stories from the time speak of children entertaining themselves by carving grotesque faces into gourds and pumpkins.
The practice of pumpkin carving became even more popular when The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written by Washington Irving, gained popularity. This scary tale describes how a shattered pumpkin was found next to Ichabod Crane’s hat the night after he runs into the infamous headless horseman. Adaptations of the legend show pictures of the horseman with a carved pumpkin as a head.
There are a number of stories that detail how the term “jack-o-lantern” originated. One version claims that in Old England, “jack-o-lantern” was another name for the mysterious light creatures known as Will o’ the Wisp, and the term slowly evolved to refer to glowing, carved pumpkins instead. An Irish legend claims that a stingy blacksmith named Jack trapped Satan in a tree and carved crosses into the bark, preventing him from coming down. Pumpkins, they say, are carved in honor of Jack the blacksmith and are thus known as jack-o-lanterns.
Over the last century, numerous movies and television shows have depicted children and adults carving pumpkins for Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns have essentially become a symbol of the holiday. Though some still prefer to make them spooky and grotesque, much like the ones the Irish once used to ward off evil spirits, others prefer to make their faces goofy or happy. Today, jack-o-lanterns are more of a symbol of celebration than a means of protecting one’s home.
So, grab your carving tools and your favorite pumpkin, and get ready to carve your masterpiece this Halloween season. Just think, if you had been born a few hundred years sooner, you’d be carving turnips rather than big, orange pumpkins!