One of the most loved Halloween traditions in North America is pumpkin carving. At Halloween time, many families cut the top off of a pumpkin, remove the seeds, carve a face into the pumpkin, place a candle inside of it, and set the glowing “jack o’ lantern” on the porch. It is a fun tradition and one the whole family can participate in, but where did the tradition come from?
Strangely enough, the tradition of carving pumpkins at Halloween is a relatively new tradition, that blends together several older traditions. People in America were carving faces into pumpkins long before they were making jack o’ lanterns. The first mention of carved pumpkins associated with Halloween was in 1866. At least 50 years prior to that John Greenleaf Whittier included a line in his poem about pumpkins that went,
“When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin”
It is thought that at that time, pumpkin carving was not associated with Halloween at all but was instead related to the harvest.
Long, long before John Greenleaf Whittier was carving faces in pumpkins, the ancient Celtics were carving faces into gourds and other vegetables. They celebrated “New Years Eve” on October 31st. The end of one year and the beginning of another was a powerful time according to Celtic tradition. They believed that on that night, the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest, and they carved out faces in gourds and other vegetables at that time.
They placed lit coal inside the carved out gourds and set them outside of their homes or in their windows. There are two reasons for why they might have done this. Both reasons are related to that fact that they thought the veil between the dead and the not dead was thinnest at that time. This meant that dead loved ones could return to visit. It has been suggested that the lit faces were carved out to welcome the dead. The other idea is that the carved out faces were placed in the windows to scare away unwanted visitors who were dead.
It is possible that the lanterns carved from vegetables were placed in the windows to both invite the welcome spirits and scare away the unwelcome spirits. Whatever the reason, the tradition remained in one form or another as a part of last harvest, or new year celebrations on the British Isles. However, the tradition seems to have disappeared in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.
The tradition seemingly was reborn in the United States as Irish immigrants began telling old tales and carving faces out of pumpkins. They told an old Irish folk tale of a man named “Stingy Jack” who had tricked the devil so hell wouldn’t take him. The problem was, he still wasn’t good enough for heaven so he was left to wander the earth. There are several versions of the story but in most, Jack carries pieces of burning coal in a lantern and because of that he is called “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O’ Lantern” for short.
Again, it is unclear if the lanterns that we carve were meant to scare away Jack or just meant to symbolize this folk story.
Most sources state that the Jack O’ Lantern is not related to the Irish Tale of Jack at all but are used either to welcome departed souls back or to scare departed souls away. This is more in keeping with the ancient Celtic traditions.
Today, most people don’t know the legend of “Stingy Jack” and they don’t carve pumpkins thinking about undead souls. Today carving pumpkins is just a part of good old Halloween fun and nothing more.