What would a “haunted” home be without a spooky jack-o’-lantern lighting the way for trick-or-treaters on Halloween night? Come October, pumpkins of all shapes and sizes can be seen sporting traditional spooky faces. And not only faces – many clever carvers whittle designs of all kinds into the vegetable’s skin, from cartoon characters to landscapes to political candidates.
But how did the tradition of carving pumpkins start in the first place? Creating lanterns from vegetables was a practice in Britain and Ireland long before pumpkins became a Halloween emblem, but the legend of the jack-o’-lantern has its roots both in Irish folklore and a strange, natural occurrence.
The term “jack-o’-lantern” was once used to describe the ghostly lights that would sometimes appear over bogs at nightfall. Some scientists theorize that the phenomenon is caused by the oxidation of gases created by decaying plants, but local folk tales offer many more fanciful explanations. One version tells the story of Jack, a lazy drunkard who managed to trap the devil in a tree, refusing to let him go until he’d extracted a promise from him never to claim Jack’s soul.
After he died, Jack found he wasn’t welcome in heaven. But he wanted to go somewhere, so he appealed to the devil. Unsympathetic, the devil also turned him away – but not before giving Jack an eternally burning flame from hell’s own fires to light his way. Jack ensconced the flame in a makeshift lantern carved from a turnip, and from that night on he became known as “Jack of the Lantern” – or, “Jack-o’-lantern.” Legend has it that his lonely soul has traveled the world ever since, looking for a place to rest, and that his light is the one seen haunting the bogs at night.
Eventually, jack-o’-lanterns came to be associated with harvest time, and Irish children began carving faces into turnips and potatoes, using them to decorate their homes on All Hallow’s Eve. The custom accompanied Irish immigrants to America, but as pumpkins were both easier to carve and more readily available in the United States, they eventually replaced the traditional turnip.
Whether you carve it yourself or buy one pre-made, enjoy your Halloween pumpkin!