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There are certain traditions that we find ourselves doing every year, season after season, never knowing why we started doing them in the first place. For example, let’s talk pumpkin carving! Every time October rolls around, we push up our sleeves and take a carving knife right to a pumpkin. Sure, it looks pretty when they’re all a-glow on the front stoops of tree-lined streets, but why did we start turning pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns in the first place? We decided to dig deeper and learn about how this tradition started and why it became the intricate art form it is today.
An Irish Beginning
The exact history of the jack-o’-lantern is not one hundred percent confirmed, but there are many beliefs about its origin. While the act of carving gourds is something that dates back thousands of years, the carving of gourds for Halloween specifically is widely believed to have started in Ireland. The people would use a variety of gourds to carve in the faces of spirits and goblins during Samhain. Samhain is the period between sunset on October 31st and sunset on November 1st—a time when the Irish believed spirits were more active than normal. Another belief is that the jack-o’-lanterns were made to represent Christian souls locked in purgatory during the period between All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd.
The Headless Horseman
Since the earliest history of the jack-o’-lantern isn’t definite, a fantastic way to learn about its history is to visit the literature that references it. In certain adaptations of Washington Irving’s tale The Legends of Sleepy Hollow, there is mention of the headless horseman’s cranium being replaced with a jack-o’-lantern. In 1850, a few decades later, John Greenleaf Whittier entitles his poem ‘The Pumpkin’ and writes, “When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin, glaring out through the dark with a candle within.”
Lighting of the Pumpkin
In addition to myth and literature, there is cultural folklore that references the jack-o’lantern. In the story “Stingy Jack,” the main character Jack makes a deal with Satan, trapping him between heaven and hell. As a result, Satan mockingly tosses Jack an eternal ember to guide him through a dark and endless life. The story concludes with Jack carving out a gourd and placing the ember inside to make a lantern for eternity. He then becomes known as Jack of the Lantern, which is why many today celebrate its light.
Get to Carving
Today people go all out with their pumpkin carvings. Some sit at home and carve pumpkins with family and friends while feasting on caramel apples and cider, and others compete in passionate carving competitions. If you’re feeling up to carving a pumpkin of your own this year, visit a local pumpkin patch and get to it! And if you’re afraid of the dark, you should go ahead and prepare your jack-o’-lantern for October 31st when the spirits, ghouls and goblins come out to play.
What jack-o’-lantern story do you think is true? Have you heard of any other myths?