History of the Jack-o-Lantern
The connection between the pumpkin and Halloween is intuitive: pumpkins require warm weather and frostless ground to grow, so they can only be grown during the summer and harvested during the fall. Pumpkin harvest season begins in September and goes through October, when the vegetables are at their freshest and most delicious. This is the only time of year they can be enjoyed properly, making them the perfect addition to Halloween folklore.
The Jack-o-Lantern, however, does not simply refer to a carved pumpkin. It is the term used for any carved fruit or vegetable, usually gourds. The name Jack-o-Lantern comes from the legend of Stingy Jack of the Lantern. Jack was a very clever thief from Western Europe with the devil on his tail. He used his wits to trap the devil up a tree by drawing a cross at its trunk and would only let him go if he promised never to take Jack’s soul. When Jack died his soul was not pure enough to be taken to Heaven, but the devil couldn’t take him to Hell, so he was forced to wander the world as a lost soul. Satan wanted Jack to have at least a taste of Hell, so he gave him an ember from the flames of Hades to guide his way. Jack put the ember inside of a carved turnip (the preferred jack-o-lantern gourd of the time) and the carved vegetables were named for him and his hellish lantern.
Carving vegetables is a tradition that predates the name Jack-o-lantern and even the predecessor to Halloween: the festival of Samhain. People have been making these carvings since at least 10,000 years ago when gourds became the earliest domesticated plant, possibly due to their ideal shape and size for carving. At this time, turnips, beets, potatoes, and rutabagas were most likely used. Pumpkins were discovered in America, so it would be centuries before they would become a part of the tradition.
In Ireland Samhain was considered a time when spirits both good and evil were free to roam the Earth. Carving gourds was already a tradition, so it was easily added into celebrations of Samhain. People carved Jack-o-lanterns into scary shapes and faces, lit a candle inside using the communal bonfire every community had during Samhain, and put them in front of their windows and doors to scare Stingy Jack and his fellow evil spirits away.
When Irish immigrants came to the United States, they brought their Halloween celebrations with them, including the Jack-o-lanterns. Here they found pumpkins, which were larger and easier to carve than anything they had used before, so the pumpkin quickly became the new vegetable of choice.