Alongside cats and broomsticks, carved pumpkins have become synonymous with Halloween. Making a jack o’ lantern is no longer related to the important job of protecting hearth and home. Instead, people compete to make the scariest or most artistic lantern. Seriously, check out some amazing carved pumpkin art on Pinterest.
Children collect their trick or treat candy in plastic pumpkin buckets. And you can’t move for pumpkin spiced drinks from the middle of September onwards.
But how on earth did a carved root vegetable or fruit become a universal symbol for an annual festival? Let’s find out… Keep reading or hit play to hear the Fabulous Folklore podcast episode of this post!
The Jack o’ Lantern and Stingy Jack
The name ‘jack o’ lantern’ is widely believed to come from Stingy Jack, a figure in Irish folklore. According to legend, Jack was a bit of a trickster and enjoyed getting the better of people. After he’d driven away most of his acquaintances with his deceitful behaviour, he asked the Devil to drink with him. Satan agreed, enjoying a good knees-up as much as the next man until Jack convinced him to transform himself into a coin for pay for the drinks.
Instead of using it to buy another round, Jack put it in his pocket next to a silver cross. This forced the Devil to do Jack’s bidding and he couldn’t change back into his normal form until he promised he would leave Jack alone for a year. He couldn’t claim Jack’s soul if he died during that time.
The following year, the Devil fell for another trick after Jack got him to climb a tree. Jack carved a cross into the bark and only helped him down if the Devil promised to leave him alone for ten years.
Jack gets his comeuppance
When Jack finally died, God wouldn’t let him into heaven following his scheming ways. True to his word, the Devil couldn’t take his soul either and banned him from entering hell. He gave him a burning coal to mark Jack as a figure of the netherworld. Doomed to wander the earth for eternity, Jack popped his burning coal into a turnip to light his way. The ghostly figure became “Jack of the Lantern”.
People started carving faces into turnips and potatoes to frighten away Stingy Jack (or other wandering spirits). Placing them in doorways or windows seemed to do the trick. When the Irish and Scottish took the tradition to America, turnips seemed hard to come by. As a substitute, they found pumpkins made an excellent choice for jack o’ lanterns.
Kayla Hertz notes that ” Although the idea that the myth of the Jack-o-Lanterns is Irish is widely held, there is no scholarly research into Irish customs and mythology that proves it so” (2021). Patti Wigington makes the point that our Celtic ancestors wouldn’t be likely to give up vegetables for carving, preferring to eat them instead.
Hertz also points out that turnip lanterns do pop up in English accounts, where 18th-century people in Worcestershire carved similar lanterns from turnips to ward off undesirable visitors. This was called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern”, and these turnips had carved faces with a candle stump inside (Hertz 2021). Where they got the idea from is unclear, but who knows if someone heard the original Irish folklore and liked the idea?
Carving pumpkins first pops up in American records in 1837 as part of regular harvest celebrations. They only appeared in relation to Halloween in the late 19th century.
Other interpretations of the Jack o’ Lantern
Matt Soniak claims the term originally referred to a night watchman, as far back as 1663. Later, people associated the jack o’ lantern with the will-o’-the-wisp. These are the strange lights that flicker over marshes and bogs. The will-o’-the-wisp dates to the 17th century. Its earliest usage places it in East Anglia. I can’t find any definitive link but I wonder if people believed Stingy Jack and his lantern caused the eerie marsh lights.
The Irish took the carved lanterns to America, where pumpkins were far easier to come by. Kids would take their lanterns out into boggy ground to frighten people into thinking Stingy Jack was abroad. Thus the link between pumpkin lanterns and pranks was born. Carving pumpkins first pops up in American records in 1837 as part of regular harvest celebrations. They only appeared in relation to Halloween in the 1880s, when the lanterns were first called jack o’lanterns (Soniak 2018).
According to Movies and Mania, other theories suggest jack o’ lanterns represented souls in purgatory (2014). Before the Reformation in England, people believed the soul lingered in purgatory after death. Saying prayers for the soul helped speed them through the process. The poor often offered to say prayers for the dearly departed of wealthy families, in exchange for food. At Halloween, they’d be given soul cakes, creating the prototype for trick-or-treating.
The Church of England dispensed with the concept of purgatory, seeing souls go straight to heaven or hell. I’d be surprised if people carved turnips to represent souls in purgatory once the belief became less common in later centuries.
Some believe the jack o’ lantern warded off the undead, their light used to identify vampires.
Yet other stories consider the lantern to be a means of guiding home the spirits of the dead. These families placed a jack o’lantern outside their home to guide the dearly departed home for the evening. Since the veil between worlds is at its thinnest at Halloween, families welcomed home their lost souls. I can’t help thinking those stories confuse the jack o’ lantern with the traditional Samhain candle in the window.
The pumpkin and the Headless Horseman
The pumpkin also makes an appearance in Washington Irving’s tale, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. In the story, schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is terrorised on his way home by the spirit of the Headless Horseman. The ghoul throws his head at Crane, knocking him off his horse. The following day, only Crane’s hat is found, beside the shattered remains of a pumpkin.
Irving never makes any mention of a carved face upon the pumpkin. The reader assumes Crane has mistaken the pumpkin for a head in the darkness. Disney quite clearly added a grinning face to the pumpkin head in their 1949 adaptation of the story.
Some believe American children took to carving increasingly outlandish lanterns to play pranks on one another. Perhaps Irving took his inspiration from such impish jokes.
Instead of just buying pumpkins, you can always grow your own. You should plant pumpkins when the apple trees blossom. After all, if you:
Plant pumpkin seeds in MayCarroll 1998: 407
And they will all run away.
Plant pumpkin seeds in June
And they will come soon.
When you’ve scooped out the inside to make your lantern, what do you do with the innards? Make a pumpkin pie, obviously.
Speaking of recipes, here are a few recipes for soul cakes too, if you want to hand out something other than sweets to trick or treaters!
Beware Jack of the Lantern!
So next time you’re out at night on Halloween and you see a light bobbing in the distance…take care. It may just be Jack o’ Lantern wandering between the worlds…
Over to you! Do you carve a jack o’ lantern for Halloween? Pop any photos of your best attempt in the comments below!
Carroll, William (1998), Superstitions: 10,000 You Really Need, San Marcos, CA: Coda Publications.
Hertz, Kayla (2021), ‘Original Irish Jack-o-Lanterns made of turnips were truly terrifying’, Irish Central, https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/jack-o-lantern-turnips-ireland.
Movies and Mania (2014), ‘Jack-O’-Lantern – Halloween folklore and tradition’, Movies and Mania, https://moviesandmania.com/2014/10/06/jack-o-lantern-halloween-folklore-and-tradition/.
Soniak, Matt (2018), ‘What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?’, Mental Floss, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/12865/whats-origin-jack-o-lanterns.
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