The Jack O'Lantern's history embodies the Halloween spirit
Ben Grimmig '12 and Aileen Evans '12 carve pumpkins on Dana lawn in preparation for Halloween weekend.
If you’ve ever gone trick-or-treating, you’re bound to have seen pumpkins carved with two triangle eyes and a wide smile, better known as Jack O’Lanterns. With all of the Halloween festivities coming up, you may find yourself wondering where this odd tradition came from. No need to worry, here is all you need to know about the history of the famous Jack O’Lantern.
Surprisingly, the tradition of carving faces into pumpkins comes from an old Irish folktale, the Legend of Stingy Jack. Jack was an old drunk who played tricks on everyone. One night, he wanted to go out to a bar and invited the Devil to join him. Jack did not want to pay for the drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Instead, he put the coin next to a silver cross in his pocket, preventing the Devil from changing back to his original form. Jack kept the Devil as a coin until the Devil promised not to bother Jack for a year, and not to claim Jack’s soul into Hell. The Devil agreed and did as he was told.
The next year, Jack tricked the Devil again. While the Devil was in a tree picking some fruit, Jack carved a cross into the tree bark so that the Devil could not come down unless he promised not to bother Jack for another 10 years. Before the 10 years were over, Jack died. God did not want Jack in heaven, and the Devil did not want him in hell.
During this time, people believed that if one was rejected from both heaven and hell, his or her soul was sent into the dark night with a burning coal to light the way. As Jack found himself in this situation, his soul was sent into the dark. The Irish believe that Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been wandering the earth ever since. They called him “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O’Lantern” in true Irish fashion.
Irish families started making their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving faces into turnips and displaying them on the window. They believed that the turnips would ward off Stingy Jack and other evil souls from entering their homes, especially on All Hallow’s Eve—the night when the ghosts of the dead roamed the earth.
All Hallow’s Eve, what we know today as Halloween, was not widely celebrated in early American history. In Maryland and the Southern colonies, communities originally gathered in the late fall to celebrate the harvest and tell ghost stories.
Later, in the mid-19th century, a huge wave of traditional Irish families immigrated to the United States. They brought many traditions with them, including carving Jack O’Lanterns into turnips. However, they found that pumpkins, a popular American fruit, were bigger and easier to carve than turnips. Conveniently enough, pumpkins are harvested in October, so the Irish immigrants celebrated the harvest by carving Jack O’Lanterns in pumpkins. Thus, the grand tradition was born. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Halloween developed into a secular holiday, and more and more Americans participated in the festivities.
Pumpkin carving remains a huge tradition today. Many students on the Hill not only recall carving Jack O’Lanterns when they were children, but also continue to carve a pumpkin every Halloween to this day. The older we get the more intricate and elaborate our pumpkin carvings become, turning pumpkin carving into a very competitive practice as well. So when you carve your next pumpkin over Halloween weekend, remember that it’s not just for fun, but also to ward off evil spirits and protect you for another year.