The History of the Jack-o'-lantern

The story behind the classic Halloween symbol
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Created by Jac

Published on Oct 28, 2021

Picture this. You’re a child again on Halloween night. Your friends and you have all gathered in one of the nicer neighborhoods to do some trick-or-treating. Each one of you dons a costume and an empty sack or pillowcase. You’re feeling the elation that comes with the freedom of being out on your own with friends at twilight, and the promise of sweet confections for your “labor”. You circle the block, autumn leaves underfoot, and at the threshold of each house that you ascend upon, you are greeted not only by the inhabitants themselves but by another grinning, jovial face that lights up the night with a familiar orange glow. The jack o'lantern on the porch gives you the comfort of knowing that families and kids are safe going out tonight. That each house you visit with a carved pumpkin is open and awaiting your arrival, ready to participate in this glorious one-night-only event. 

Jack-o’-lanterns have been illuminating our Halloween nights with their toothy grins for hundreds of years, and have even become an art form for many amateur and professional carvers. But how did it all start? Where does the carved pumpkin get its origins from and what is it about them that so well symbolizes the event that many look forward to all year long? To find out, we need to go back several centuries to the origins of the holiday we now call Halloween. 

Before it was Halloween though, it was Samhain, pronounced Sow-en, and was celebrated by the Celtic people of Ireland, Scotland, and other parts of Northern Europe during the Iron Age, as a way of observing the progression of the wheel of the year, specifically the Sun-god’s death and rebirth, in October. It celebrates summer’s end and the coming of the darker months with a ritual feast and a festival of fire. It’s worth noting that there are pagans all around the western world who still celebrate it to this day, and mark the holiday as a time to pay homage to lost loved ones and ancestors. Though many of the original Samhain rituals have been lost to the ages, records tell us that the Celts would hollow out and carve turnips and other root vegetables with grotesque and frightening faces and then stuff them with glowing embers, not only to light the way for their loved ones, who on Samhain were allowed to roam the earth again as spirits, but also to ward off any evil forces that would be released that night. 

After the Roman takeover, it was common for the Catholic church to reform pagan holiday traditions to fit within the Christian doctrines, and so the root vegetable carvings of Samhain were given a name that accompanied a fairly thematic legend to fit the newly christened All Saints Day or All Hallows Day, “hallow” meaning someone who is revered or sacred. In the original story, a man named Stingy Jack makes deals with and subsequently tricks the devil not once but several times, and as punishment is prohibited from entering both heaven and hell. Instead, he is doomed to roam the darkened woods for eternity, given only a single piece of coal to light his way. “Jack of the lantern” soon became “jack-o'-lantern” and the name stuck! 

A few centuries later, when the descendants of the Celtic people immigrated to the new world, they brought their traditions with them. It was there in New England that these Irish, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants encountered the smooth-skinned gourds of the American continent and the tradition of the jack-o'-lantern was changed forever. These vegetables, the squashes and pumpkins once used for subsistence agriculture by the Native Americans, quickly replaced root vegetables as the main ingredients for jack-o'-lanterns. They made better canvases as they were larger and more hollow, to begin with. Over the years, farmers even bred them to be the perfect size, density, and hardness needed for carving. To this day, the most popular jack-o’-lantern pumpkin of choice is the Connecticut field pumpkin discovered in 1871, and subsequently grown and regrown in several varieties. 

During the 1900s, the U.S. would see an even greater transformation of the holiday itself, as All Saints Day was gradually adopted into mainstream culture as a nonsecular harvest event. All Hallows’ Day became All Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween. Trick-or-treating was invented as a way to keep rowdy kids busy and kind to the general public who would reward or “treat” them with candy. This change to a nonreligious costuming event also changed the rituals. Jack-o'-lanterns were made less for their original purpose and more as spooky and sometimes comical decorations, prompting artistry and ingenuity in some ambitious carvers. T.V. shows like Pumpkin Wars on HGTV and Outrageous Pumpkins on the Food Network demonstrate the high levels of craft that pumpkin carving has become. 

So there you have it, a (somewhat) complete history of the jack-o’-lantern. From its roots as an Iron Age protection against spirits, to today, it's certainly come a long way. And perhaps it has lost some of its mystical lore. After all, today’s billion-dollar Halloween industry is a far cry from the reverence and piety that used to accompany the carved root vegetables of Samhain. But one could argue that there is still magic to be seen in the act of choosing and carving that special pumpkin each year. There is something to be said for what may be the longest-running harvest tradition still observed within a culture that’s quick to phase out the symbolistic. Our allegiance to the practice proves that the magic lives on. We guard them as much as they guard us. After all, what kid (or adult for that matter) doesn’t look forward to the one night a year where we get to pretend, to play our communal game, to binge on chocolates and sour gummies, all under the watchful eyes of our friend, the jack-o'-lantern.

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