Why Do We Carve Pumpkins for Halloween?

Jack-o-lanterns
Jack-O-Lanterns, Image Courtesy of Stuart Miles, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As strange as it may seem, we carve pumpkins (jack-o-lanterns) because of a trickster who harassed the devil and failed to pay his bar tab. The Irish legend that gave rise to pumpkin carving, which dates back to the the 1600s, featured a blacksmith known as Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack liked playing pranks, and the devil was not exempt from his trickery. Jack once lured the devil to the top of a tree and trapped him there by carving crosses in it, only letting him down when Satan promised never to take Jack’s soul into hell.

Despite Jack’s propensity for pranks, the devil took him up on his invitation to a pub night. At the evening’s end, Jack said he had no cash, so the devil turned himself into a coin to pay the bar tab. However, Jack kept the coin and again used a cross, this time to prevent the devil from escaping Jack’s pocket and returning to his regular form. Jack refused to set him free until Satan reiterated his promise that Jack would never go to hell.

When Jack eventually died, heaven rejected him due to his life of sinning, so he wandered through the darkness, trapped between worlds. The devil must have had a soft spot for Stingy Jack, as he took pity on his old harasser, giving him an ember from hell’s fires to light his way through the darkness. Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the ember inside so that the little flame could be carried easily through the dark realm in which he was doomed to dwell forever. Will-o’-the-wisps (hovering lights caused by the combustion of natural gasses produced by decomposing plants in marshy areas) were thought to be the light from Stingy Jack’s turnip as he walked between the worlds.

As the story of Stingy Jack spread, people took up the practice of carving turnips, beets, and potatoes and placing burning embers or coals inside them. These jack-o’-lanterns ¬†were thought to provide protection against spirits like Stingy Jack who dwelt in the darkness, though they could also be used by children to trick their friends into thinking Stingy Jack was nearby.

When they came to North America, immigrants from the UK began carving pumpkins because they were far easier to work with than smaller vegetables, and they started lighting them with long-burning candles rather than embers or coals. Over time, these jack-o’-lanterns became decorative features rather than defenses against dark spirits or props for children’s pranks.

Although jack-o-lantern (a shortening of jack-of-the-lantern) is the best known term for carved vegetables lit from within, they have also been called fairy lights, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, fool’s fire, and will-o’-the-wisps.

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References:

    • Conradt, S. (22 October 2014). Why Do We Carve Pumpkins? MentalFloss.com.
    • Lembeck, E. (22 October 2009). The History of Carving Pumpkins. MotherEarthLiving.com.
    • Soniac, M. (24 October 2012). What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns? MentalFloss.com.