The History of Halloween and the Jack-O-Lantern

People have been making jack-o-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’ Lantern.”

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the Jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect Jack O’ lanterns.

HALLOWEEN is a night for dressing up, ghost stories, spooky parties, trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving. Most people don’t know that Halloween is actually based on an ancient Celtic holiday known as Samhain (pronounced “sow wan”), which means “summer’s end”.

It was the end of the Celtic year, starting at sundown on October 31st and going through to sundown November 1st. It was a night to honor loved ones that had passed on since the veil between their realm and ours is at it’s thinnest on that night. Celebrated for centuries by the Celts of old, Witches and many other nature based religions, it is the most magical night of the year. It is the Witches’ New Year, and the Last Harvest. Although the religious significance of it has passed for the general public, Halloween is a “magical” night for all!

On this magical night, glowing jack-o-lanterns, carved from turnips or gourds, were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against malevolent spirits. Burning lumps of coal were used inside as a source of light, later to be replaced by candles.

When European settlers, particularly the Irish, arrived in American they found the native pumpkin to be larger, easier to carve and seemed the perfect choice for jack-o-lanterns. Halloween didn’t catch on big in this country until the late 1800’s and has been celebrated in many ways ever since!

There is a strong connection in folklore and popular culture between pumpkins and the supernatural. Famous examples include the following:
A commonplace motif of people being turned into pumpkins by witches.
In Cinderella, the fairy godmother turns a pumpkin into a carriage, but it later reverts to a pumpkin.
Linus’ belief in the Great Pumpkin in Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts.
Pumpkin juice has magical effects in the short story “Pumpkin Juice” by R. L. Stine.
In the Harry Potter novels pumpkin juice is a favorite drink of the students of Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The pumpkin is hurled by the “Headless Horseman” in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Jack Pumpkinhead, a character in the Oz books of L. Frank Baum, has a pumpkin for a head on a wooden body that is brought to life in the second book.
In Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, the main character, Jack Skellington, is “the Pumpkin King.”
Precious Ramotswe, the fictional detective from Botswana in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of novels by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, often cooks and eats pumpkin.
In a short fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Feathertop from 1852, a witch turns a scarecrow with a “pumpkinhead” into a man.