Have you ever wondered what the history is behind carving faces on pumpkins? Funny, I never have, and I love carving pumpkins.
When I was younger, I would be more excited about carving pumpkins than I would about trick or treating.
So, in honor of the pumpkin, since really October is the month of the pumpkin, I decided to do a little research to find out the traditions and folklore behind the Jack-O’-Lantern.
Throughout Ireland and Britain, they have a long standing tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables. Their vegis of choice were the turnip, mangelwurzel, or the swede—the rutabaga. It wasn’t until 1837 that the name jack-o’-lantern appears as a term for a carved vegetable. Also, the carved lantern doesn’t become connected with Halloween until 1866.
In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season. This was long before carving pumpkins became a symbol of Halloween.
An old Irish folk tale told of a man named Stingy Jack. He was said to be a lazy, but clever farmer who used crosses to trap the devil.
One story told how Jack tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree. Once he was up there, Jack placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark. Since the devil couldn’t pass the crosses, he was trapped.
Another story is Jack placed a key in the devil’s pocket while he was suspended upside-down. LOL, why this would supposedly trap the devil, I have no clue.
Another story about Stingy Jack and the devil is one evening Jack was being chased by some villagers because he stole from them. As Jack ran, he met the devil who said it was time for Jack to die. Jack stalled his death by tempting the devil with a chance to bedevil the church goers who were chasing him.
Jack asked the devil to turn into a coin so he could pay back what he had stolen. The plan was after the coin/devil disappeared, the Christians would then fight over who stole it.
Always up for snaring a few good Christians, the devil agreed and turned into a silver coin. He then jumped into Jack’s wallet. Unbeknownst to the devil, Jack had placed a small cross in there. Again, the devil was good and trapped.
When Jack closed his wallet, the cross stripped the devil of all his powers.
The story said Jack only agreed to free him if the devil promised to never take his soul.
After awhile Jack passed away, but since his life was full of sin, he was barred from heaven. And since the devil promised not to take his soul, Jack was barred from hell too.
Jack floated around in blackness. He asked the devil how he would see where he was going since he had no light. The devil tossed him an ember from hell that would never burn out. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the ember inside. He wandered endlessly over the earth, looking for a resting place. He became known as Jack of the lantern or Jack-O’-Lantern.
A different version of this story is Jack was a wise and good man, and God helped Jack to triumph over the devil.
Another variation of this story is Jack was considered so greedy he wasn’t allowed in heaven or hell.
Another account is God was the one who gave Jack the turnip.
Yet another adaptation is Jack tricked the Grim Reaper into giving him eternal life. In exchange, the Grim Reaper took Jack’s head back to hell. Jack then wandered the earth using a carved pumpkin for a head.
The tern Jack-‘-lantern originally meant a night watchman or a man with a lantern. The earliest known use of the term was in the mid 17th century.
Whatever the traditions and folklore, I love carving faces into round, orange pumpkins. I think I’ll carve a picture of Stingy Jack, wandering the earth, wearing a pumpkin for a head.