The Origins of the Jack-o’-Lantern

The Origins of the Jack-o’-Lantern


Sasha Bush

The Greater Ashland Beacon

The scene is set… it’s a dark, cold, and windy night. There isn’t a streetlight to be found, and the only noise that can be heard is that of a stray dog howling into the midnight air from far away. There is a certain chill in the air, but not a chill brought about by cold weather. Oh no, this chill can only mean one thing… its officially SPOOKY SEASON!  Suddenly you find yourself surrounded by glowing eyes perched upon every stoop as you pass by. You take a deep breath, and that’s when you realize that you are surrounded by jack-o’-lanterns.

For centuries the jack-o’-lantern has long been thought of as an iconic symbol of Halloween, but where exactly did this tradition come from, and why is it that we use pumpkins to carve out these spooky works of art? To understand the history of the iconic jack-o’-lantern we must travel back a few hundred years to rural Ireland which we know to be full of folklore and legends.

One such legend is that of Stingy Jack. Legend tells us that Stingy Jack, once a mere mortal, made a deal with the Devil and then recanted on this deal. In turn, the Devil cursed Stingy Jack to roam the earth for all eternity in total darkness with his only source of light being that of one tiny ember. Over the years the legend of Stingy Jack evolved and intertwined with many other legends and traditions, bringing about the introduction of the first jack-o’-lanterns. During the 1600s, Irishmen would often carve out the insides of potatoes or turnips and place single hot coal or candle inside them. These were then placed outside their homes to help provide a source of light during times of celebration. Occasionally these makeshift lights would be carved to resemble faces to ward off any unwanted intruders. Over the years the legend of Stingy Jack and the tradition of these makeshift lights intertwined into what we know now as jack-o’-lanterns.

It wasn’t until the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s that Irish immigrants arrived in America and discovered a new much larger item to carve their makeshift lights from… PUMPKINS! The Irish quickly discovered that carving pumpkins was not only easier but produced a far greater source of light than that of a turnip or potato. Because of the pumpkin's much larger size, the Irish were able to place more than a single hot coal or candle inside, which in turn produced a much larger light source. Eventually, the tradition of pumpkin carving was adopted by many settlers throughout America and has since grown into the tradition that we all know and love today. The popularity of carving jack-o’-lanterns has certainly grown throughout the years. It is estimated that around 146 million Americans carve these orange delicacies into works of art each year in celebration of Halloween. Pumpkin carving has transformed into quite an art form over the centuries. Every year there are thousands who take part in pumpkin carving competitions at local fairs and festivals, as well as children who take part in contests hosted by their schools. This tradition has become one that is loved by all. Pumpkin carving has been around for a very long time and will continue to be a source of light, memories, and tradition for many years to come.


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