Dose of History: Carved Pumpkins

By Alexandra Wenger ‘21

Have you ever wondered why people carve faces into pumpkins? The tradition of carving faces into various vegetables and gourds is an old one, but this particular carving practice  originated in 19th century Ireland and other Gaelic speaking regions. During the festival of Samhain in Irish mythology, (October 31st to November 1st), it was believed that supernatural beings and the souls of the dead walk on earth. The carved-out lanterns, which were then made of turnips, warded off those spirits. When Irish immigrants came to America, they instead carved the faces out of pumpkins, which are native to the region.

This still begs the question: why do we call the carved pumpkins  jack-o’-lanterns? This comes from another Irish folktale called “Stingy Jack.” According to the tale, there once lived a deceitful, manipulative drunkard named Stingy Jack. Hearing of his wrongdoings, Satan decided to pay him a visit and take his soul. When he appeared to Jack, the drunkard requested one final drink. They went to a pub, and after drinking his fill, Jack asked Satan to shapeshift into a coin so he could pay his tab. Impressed with his sinful actions, Satan did so. To his surprise, Stingy Jack pocketed Satan, along with a crucifix. With both of these items in Jack’s pocket, Satan could not turn back into his original form. In exchange for his freedom, Jack made Satan promise to not bother him again for ten years.

Ten years later, Satan returned to Jack. Jack seemingly accepted his fate, but requested one last apple before he was sent to Hell. While Satan climbed an apple tree, Jack surrounded it with crucifixes to trap Satan. In exchange for his freedom, Stingy Jack made Satan promise to never take his soul to Hell.

When Stingy Jack finally died, his soul prepared to enter Heaven’s gates. Upon arrival, he was told that he was not allowed into Heaven because of his deceit and alcoholism. With nowhere else to go, Jack turned to Satan at the gates of Hell. True to his promise to Jack, Satan did not take his soul. As a warning to other nefarious souls, he gave Jack a lantern inside a rutabaga to light his way, marking him a drifter of the netherworld. To this day, he purportedly wanders between the planes of Good and Evil.

Although the details of the story may vary between regions, the ending always includes a hollowed-out vegetable lantern. Hence, jack-o’-lantern.

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