The History of the Jack O' Lantern: Why We Carve Pumpkins At Halloween

By Kate Maloney

As autumn arrives and the long summer days become shorter and crisper, you will probably start thinking about fall activities and events. Halloween is a high point of autumn for many people, and there will be lots of fun things to do around this time. One thing that says "Halloween" like almost nothing else is the jack-o'-lantern. Because pumpkins are finally ripe at this time of year and they're such a pretty fall color, a lot of people use them to decorate at Halloween. But why do we celebrate Halloween, and where did jack-o'-lanterns come from?

History of Halloween

Halloween celebrations began hundreds of years ago. Celtic people in Europe celebrated a festival they called Samhain. At Samhain, the Celts believed that the souls of people who had died during the past year could travel to the "otherworld" and ghosts could come back to visit the living. The Celts built huge bonfires to honor their dead. They sacrificed animals and fruits and vegetables from their harvest so that the spirits could eat, too.

When Christian missionaries came and tried to convert the Celtic people to Christianity, changes happened to Samhain that made it more like the Halloween you know today. These missionaries created a new holiday on November 1, which they called All Saints Day. All Saints Day was also sometimes called All Hallows Day ("hallow" means "holy person"). This day was created to honor all Christian saints, and it was made as a replacement for Samhain. The Celts didn't stop celebrating their festival, but over time, some of their traditions became part of what would be known as All Hallows Eve, the day before All Hallows Day. The idea of spirits wandering among the living remained as part of All Hallows Eve, which was shortened over time to "Halloween."

Pumpkins and Jack-o'-Lanterns

Most pumpkins in the United States are ready to harvest during October, right around when Halloween comes. Pumpkins are often orange, but they can also be yellow, white, or green. Although they're technically a fruit, people usually think of pumpkins as vegetables. The average pumpkin weighs about 13 pounds.

But why do we carve pumpkins? Back in ancient times, the Celts carved faces into gourds and turnips as they celebrated Samhain. They placed hot coals or candles in their carved lanterns and set them on their porches to scare off evil spirits. When Irish people came to live in the United States, they brought this idea with them, but in the United States, they found bright orange pumpkins that were pretty to look at and easier to carve than turnips. Slowly, jack-o'-lanterns became a part of American Halloween celebrations.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

Legends and ghost stories are a big part of Halloween, too. The legend of Stingy Jack is one story that explains why people carved vegetables into lanterns. This legend tells of a man named Jack, who was known for drinking and being stingy. Jack and the Devil had a drink together, but Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks. So he tricked the Devil into turning himself into a coin, which Jack was supposed to use to pay for the drinks. But Jack kept the coin instead, shoving it into his pocket, where he also had a crucifix. The crucifix weakened the Devil so he couldn't change back into himself. Jack let the Devil go only after making the Devil agree that he wouldn't bother Jack for one year and that he could never claim his soul. Later, Jack met the Devil again and tricked him into climbing a tree, then trapped the Devil in the tree with a cross. Again, he made the Devil promise to leave him alone and never take his soul before he would let the Devil go free. After Jack died, God wouldn't let him into heaven, and the Devil had promised not to take him, either. Instead, the Devil gave Jack a piece of burning coal, telling him that he would have to roam the world alone instead. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip to use as a lantern. People started calling him "Jack of the lantern," which was eventually shortened to just "Jack o' lantern."