Among our most cherished modern traditions linked with Halloween is the custom of pumpkin carving. The pumpkin is a plant native to North America and one of the world’s oldest domesticated plants. Typically orange, with ribbed skin and sweet, fibrous flesh, the pumpkin formed an important part of pre-Columbian diets.
Yet when this particular winter squash is hollowed out, a pair of eyes and a twisted grin are cut into its thick shell, and a lit candle is placed behind them, it transforms into a glowering Jack O’Lantern.
How did a New World vegetable, albeit one that is by definition a fruit (it is the product of seed-bearing, flowering plants), combine with a custom of carving originating in the British Isles to become an essential part of contemporary Halloween traditions?
Where did the tradition of pumpkin carving come from?
The history of pumpkin carving at Halloween is generally associated with a ghostly figure known as “Stingy Jack” or “Jack O’Lantern”. He is a lost soul resigned to wandering the earth and preying on unsuspecting travellers. In Ireland and Scotland, people placed vegetable carvings, typically using turnips, which depicted faces on their doorstep in order to frighten this spirit away.
According to this interpretation of the pumpkin carving tradition, immigrants to North America continued the custom of placing jack-o’-lanterns outside. However, instead of using small, tricky-to-carve vegetables, they used more visually appealing, much bigger and more readily available pumpkins.
Who was Stingy Jack?
In the Irish version of a tale that is common to multiple oral traditions, Stingy Jack, or Drunk Jack, tricked the devil so that he could purchase a final drink. As a result of his deception, God forbade Jack from entering heaven, while the Devil barred him from hell. Jack was left instead to roam the earth. Pumpkin carving appears to originate in part from this Irish myth.
The story is linked to the natural phenomena of strange lights that appear to flicker over peat bogs, swamps and marshes. What can be explained by modern science as a product of organic decay was once attributed by various folk beliefs to ghosts, fairies and supernatural spirits. These illuminations have been known as jack-’o’-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps, after the figures said to haunt the areas with a light.
Another folk tale originating in Shropshire, recounted in Katharine M. Briggs’s A Dictionary of Fairies, features a blacksmith named Will. He is punished by the Devil for squandering a second chance to enter heaven. Provided with a single burning coal to warm himself, he then lures travellers into the marshes.
Why are they called Jack O’Lanterns?
Jack O’Lantern appears as a term for a carved vegetable lantern from the early 19th century, and by 1866, there was a recorded link between the use of carved, hollowed-out pumpkins resembling faces and the season of Halloween.
The origin of the name Jack O’Lantern draws from the folk tales of the wandering soul, but probably also draws from contemporary naming conventions. When it was common to call unfamiliar men by the name “Jack”, a night watchman may have assumed the name “Jack-of-the-Lantern”, or “Jack O’Lantern”.
What does the Jack O’Lantern symbolize?
The custom of carving faces to deter figures like Jack O’Lantern may have built on much longer traditions. Vegetable carvings may have at one point represented war trophies, symbolising the severed heads of foes. An older precedent exists in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain which inspires the modern Halloween holiday.
Samhain commemorated the onset of winter, when the souls of the deceased walked the earth. During Samhain festivities, which took place on 1 November shortly after the harvest, people may have worn costumes and carved faces into whatever root vegetables were available in order to ward off the wandering souls.
The American Jack O’Lantern
Though the pumpkin is native to North America, most English colonists may have been familiar with pumpkins before they settled there. Pumpkins travelled to Europe within three decades of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas. They were first mentioned in European writings in 1536 and by the mid-16th century, pumpkins were being cultivated in England.
While pumpkins were easy to grow and proved versatile for different meals, colonists also recognised the vegetable’s visual appeal. This helped establish the vegetable as a fixture at harvest festivals by the time Irish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries helped popularise the traditions of Jack O’Lanterns in America.
Pumpkins and Thanksgiving
Thanks to its vibrant and outsized physical appearance, the pumpkin is the subject of pageantry, competitions, and seasonal decorations in the United States and elsewhere. This is especially the case during the American holiday of Thanksgiving, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of November.
A traditional aetiology for pumpkin feasting at Thanksgiving recalls the harvest celebration between the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Wampanoag people in 1621. This is despite the fact that no pumpkin was eaten there. According to Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, pumpkin pie’s place in Thanksgiving meals was only assured in the 19th century.
Pumpkins at Halloween
The popularization of Halloween as an entertainment event happened around the same time as the development of Thanksgiving. Halloween had long been a fixture on European calendars under the name of All Hallow’s Eve. This was a holiday which blended the traditions of Celtic Samhain and the Catholic holidays of All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day.
As the historian Cindy Ott notes, existing rural harvest decorations were folded into the scenery as foils for more paranormal spectacles. Pumpkins became central to these backdrops. Party planners, she records, advised using pumpkin lanterns, which the popular press had already turned into props in picturesque visions of country life.
Themes of death and the supernatural continued to figure in Halloween carvings on pumpkins. In an October 1897 issue of Ladies Home Journal, the authors of a Halloween entertainment guide expressed how, “We are all of us the better for an occasional frolic, and Halloween, with its quaint customs and mystic tricks, affords opportunity for much innocent merriment.”
Pumpkins and the supernatural
The associations between pumpkins and the supernatural in fairy tales have also helped to cement its status as a Halloween icon. The fairy godmother of Cinderella turns a pumpkin into a carriage for the title character, for example. Meanwhile, a pumpkin has a prominent role in Washington Irving’s ghost story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, first published in 1819.
The role of a smashed pumpkin found near the last traces of the character Ichabod Crane has helped transform the pumpkin into an essential Halloween fixture, while the headless horseman in the tale has commonly been rendered with a pumpkin on his neck.