Christmas has Christmas trees. Easter has Easter eggs. Thanksgiving has Thanksgiving turkeys. And Halloween? Halloween has squat, vivaciously-colored Halloween pumpkins- and not just any pumpkins. Carved pumpkins. As weirdly specific as some of our holiday traditions get, pumpkin carving is perhaps one of the most strange. Where in the world did we get the idea to take a pumpkin, slice some holes out of it, stick a candle inside, and call it fun? The origin story may just surprise you. Let’s take a look.
Named after ominous, unexplained light occurring over peat bogs, jack-o’-lanterns are pumpkins which have had their tops cut off, their insides scooped out, and a design carved into their exteriors. The jack-o’-lantern has become inextricably woven into the idea and meaning of Halloween in America, with commercialized versions lining grocery store shelves and real ones lining neighborhood streets. They’re here, and they’re here to stay. But where did they come from?
Not Such an Original Idea
Vegetable-carving as a practice has been around for at least 10,000 years. Gourds were commonly used for carving and as such were one of the earliest plant species domesticated by humans- specifically for this reason. Many parts of the world utilized vegetable-carving for many different reasons, but we know for certain that the use of these vegetables as lanterns was common at least 700 years ago. The Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, used gourds to carve lanterns. Their word for “gourd” even meant lampshade.
Blame the Irish
But Halloween didn’t exist for the Maori people as it does for Americans today. How did the tradition of carving vegetables into lanterns turn into a gruesome design contest for adults and kids alike? Most sources point to Ireland. In the 19th century Ireland, vegetables like turnips and pumpkins were used during Halloween and Samhain as lanterns, often with faces carved into them. Samhain was the Celtic-speaking region’s Halloween, and it was a time when supernatural beings and the souls of the dead were said to be wandering about. Jack-o’-lanterns were used to represent these beings, but also to ward off evil spirits.
There has also been murmuring about the potential for the lanterns to represent Christian souls bound in Purgatory, as Halloween is the eve of All Saints’ Day. For others, the grotesquely-carved pumpkins were just a way to frighten people, which is perhaps what modern-day Halloween-goers can relate to the most. In 1837 the Dublin Penny Journal chronicled a local pub’s gourd carving competition, while two years earlier they published a piece on the legend of the “Jack-o’-Lantern.” It’s probably safe to say we can blame the Irish for this one.
As with most (well, all) of our holidays, Halloween is a hodgepodge concoction of various cultural rituals and traditions. We ought to be thankful to the many peoples and people groups who came before us and added their own threads to the whole tapestry that we now get to enjoy as a nation. Stay safe out there this Halloween season, and don’t forget to do some pumpkin carving with the family. Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, creating jack-o’-lanterns is a great way to light up your celebration.