The jack-o’-lantern is the most popular Halloween decoration and a symbol of this holiday. But who started carving pumpkins and why? We sum up the most important information about the history of this tradition and the legend of “Stingy Jack”.
The history of the jack-o’-lantern
Although is very common in the United Stated, the tradition of carving pumpkins presumably has it’s origins in Ireland.
- To mark the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, people in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man used to celebrate “Samhain”. The pagan festival took place in the night from October 31 to November 1.
- It was believed that the boundary between our world and the realm of the deities and the dead dissappeared – thus allowing the spirits of the dead to walk on Earth during this night.
- To represent the supernatural beings, but also to keep evil spirits away, people hollowed out turnips and other vegetables, carved them with scary faces and used them as lanterns.
- Irish immigrants brought this tradition with them when they came to America in the 19th century. Since pumpkins were easier to find and better suited for carving, the immigrants started using pumpkins instead of turnips.
- This custom became very popular thanks to adaptations of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which presented the Headless Horseman as having a jack-o’-lantern instead of a head.
Why are carved pumpkins called “Jack-o’-lantern”?
The term “jack-o’-lantern” (Jack of the lantern) is derived from the old Irish legend of Stingy Jack.
- According to the legend, Stingy Jack was an Irish blacksmith who loved to drink and also to deceive people.
- One version of the legend says that Stingy Jack was supposed to die on All Hallows Eve. Satan came to take Jack’s soul, but Jack asked him for a favor. Before dying, he wanted to eat an apple.
- The devil climbed up an apple tree. But Jack carved a cross in the bark and the devil got trapped. In order to be free again, Satan promissed Jack not to take his soul.
- There are other versions, too. But in each of them the devil gets trapped and promisses not to take Jack’s soul.
- When Jack dies many years later, he can’t go to heaven because of his sins. But he can’t go to hell either, because the devil promissed not to take his soul.
- Therefore, Jack has to wander the Earth, searching for a resting place. The devil gives him a burning piece of coal to lighten his path. Jack keeps the coal in a hollowed-out turnip that he uses as a lamp.
- That is why these Halloween “lamps” (turnips in erlier times and now pumpkins) are called “jack-o’-lantern”.