The very first image to pop into most people’s minds when they hear the word “Halloween” is a jack-o-lantern. Jack-o-lanterns, with their ghoulish, flickering faces, are without a doubt the perfect Halloween decorations.
Why do we use pumpkins for carving
But have you ever wondered how the tradition of carving scary faces into a pumpkin became so popular, and why pumpkins are used in the first place?
You might be interested to find out that pumpkins only grow naturally in the western hemisphere, and were unknown to the Europeans until the discovery of the New World. The practice of carving jack-o-lanterns began in Ireland, and it originally involved the carving of turnips or gourds such as potatoes.
When Irish immigrants came over to America, they found that pumpkins worked much better for their jack-o-lantern tradition, as they are larger and easier to carve. The practice eventually caught on among all Americans and became an important part of Halloween.
Why scary faces
But why do jack-o-lanterns often have such scary faces, with pointed teeth and malevolent eyes? Is it just to go along with the creepy spirit of the holiday? Actually, there is a lot more to the story.
The Irish people who began the tradition of jack-o-lanterns would often set their carved turnips or gourds out on their windows or porches. This served two purposes. One was to welcome the spirits of loved ones who had passed. The other was to scare away evil spirits, because, according to folklore, it is only when a demon sees something as terrifying as itself that it will run away.
Though jack-o-lanterns were meant to scare away all evil spirits, one spirit in particular that people were concerned about was Stingy Jack.
The Legend of Stingy Jack
As the legend goes, Stingy Jack was a man who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Being a stingy man, Jack did not want to pay for the drinks, and tricked the Devil into paying instead. When Jack died, God would not allow his soul into heaven. The Devil, upset at being tricked by Jack, would not allow his soul into hell, and instead tossed him a single burning ember.
Jack put the ember inside a carved-out turnip, and his soul was left to wander the earth. As all that could be seen of Jack was his flickering lantern, he began to be known as “Jack the Lantern.”
In order to scare him and keep him away from their homes, the Irish began to carve their own jack-o-lanterns, and this is how the popular tradition of pumpkin carving began.