Every fall, millions of Americans decorate their doorsteps, porches, and gardens with pumpkins. Come the end of October, many of these fruits have ghoulish faces carved into them. At night, a candle flickers inside, bringing these demonic creations to life as they stare into the dark, unknown night. When considered logically, carving pumpkins is an odd practice, so why do so many continue to do it?
Folklore dominates the tradition on pumpkin carving, centering around an Irish town drunkard called Jack, who made deals with the devil. However, there is plenty of evidence that the term Jack-o-lantern existed a hundred years before Jack emerged. Further, there is written pre-existing documentation of people using turnips as lanterns in Ireland and carving faces into them to scare passers-by. When the Irish immigrated to America, they switched from carving out turnips for the pumpkin, which was native and plentiful in their new home. Irrespective of pumpkin carving’s origin, it is considered a family-orientated cornerstone of modern Western Halloween celebrations.
Akin to most traditions, pumpkin carving evolved from its early beginnings into a modern custom. No longer is pumpkin carving for fending off wandering souls; instead, it’s a family affair filled with creativity and laughter. Interestingly, the anecdote of “Stingy Jack” that many associate with the custom may have been a creation after-the-fact to bring together elements of tradition into a suitable tale worthy of All Hallows Eve. So, let’s get to know Jack and the evidence that it may just be a good story pass down through the centuries.
Who Is Jack?
Jack is the center of 18th-century folklore, who makes at least two deals with the devil. The tale goes that “Stingy Jack” was an ill-begotten drunkard who met the devil and asked him for a drink one night at a tavern. Jack, penniless, could not pay for the alcohol and looked to the devil expectantly to pay the bill. Frustrated, the devil transformed into a six-pence coin to pay for drinks. Once the devil did, Jack popped the coin into his pocket and held it next to a silver cross. The devil was now trapped and couldn’t return to his former state. After negotiation, Jack consented to release the devil, provided he would not take Jack’s soul. Seeing no other resolution, the devil agreed. Jack was pleased, knowing he was not a righteous man and that Hell had likely been his eternal destination.
The devil was angry at how Jack had gotten the better of him. He refused to leave Jack alone from this point, seeking revenge or a way to reclaim the soul. The two were often seen together, the devil antagonizing Jack at every opportunity. Jack knew he needed to corner the devil once more to make another deal allowing solitude from the demon. Jack’s chance came when the devil fell for his trick and agreed to climb a tree to get a piece of fruit, Jack had protested he could not for his leg was in pain. Once the devil ascended the tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s trunk, once again trapping the devil with the Christian symbol. Frustrated, the devil made another deal to be released. This time, he agreed to leave Jack alone for ten years.
Believing he had outwitted the devil twice, Jack felt elated. However, Jack died shortly after he made the second deal. Alas, as expected, Jack wasn’t admitted to Heaven as St. Peter didn’t find him worthy and banished him to Hell. Unfortunately for Jack, the devil is of his word and wouldn’t and couldn’t let Jack into Hell either. When the devil turned Jack away, he handed him a single piece of coal out of respect for the soul that had beaten him twice. Jack’s soul was forced to roam the world for eternity, with only a single piece of coal to light his way through purgatory.
Other versions of the lore exist, stating that the 10-year deal was struck after the drink, and the soul deal was made after the tree. Either way, it was the combination of arrangements that sealed Jack’s fate.
Jack lit the coal and placed it in a hollowed-out turnip to light his way through the world. Isolation took its toll. He started scaring children with his erratic behavior as his sanity, and sense of self, started to dissipate. Jack became a frightening warning symbol of what it means to deal with the devil and not commit yourself to god. The townsfolk that saw Jack referred to him as “Jack of the lantern” only for it to be quickly shortened to “Jack o’ lantern.”
To ward off Jack and other wandering souls, people started creating their own lanterns with frightening faces. The idea was that the lanterns would scare away those spirits caught between Heaven and Hell on Halloween when the barrier between life and death was it’s most fragile.
Debunking the Jack Story
Tracing the root of a tradition can turn up different beginnings. It is possible (and likely) that Jack’s tale was created after the fact to fit with pre-existing behaviors. What is true is that the Irish liked to propagate the Jack legend and passed this story down through the generations long after they settled in America. Here are some reasons to doubt the authenticity of Jack being the reason pumpkin carving exists:
1. In 17th century Britain, Jack-o’-lantern translated to “man with lantern.” At the time, many towns had nightwatchmen who would survey the streets after dark. They would carry lanterns, or glass-covered candles, to guide their way. As this was documented a century before anyone noted Jack’s life, it’s adequate evidence that Jack’s character was invented to make the name make sense.
2. The poor did not usually have glass lanterns to guide them during the long dark winter nights. Instead, they would use hollowed-out turnips as a way to protect a candle’s flame. They would use the inside of the turnip to feed the family, saving only the skin and little flesh so the candle would shine through. Sometimes, when the candle could not burn bright enough, the turnip would be carved to allow the light better escape. These carvings, however, were not in the shape of faces and would not be confined to one side of the vegetable.
3. When faces started to be carved into turnips in the late 1800s, youth were the instigators to scare people as they passed by. They would be frightened by how the face would appear alive when a candle flickered within it. Over time you can see how that fits into the Jack tale.
Therefore, all the elements for turnip/pumpkin carving existed before the Irish started recounting Jack’s life. We may never know if someone called Jack existed, but his legacy is set to last for years to come.
Why Is Jack Associated With Halloween?
You’d be forgiven for wondering what all of this has to do with Halloween? There isn’t much of a link after all between lanterns, Jack, or scary faces. That is until you consider that Halloween is the night that the veil between the living and the dead is at its most fragile.
We have another Celtic influence to thank for Halloween – the pagan festival of Samhain. This religious, spiritual tradition was observed from October 31st to November 1st, their New Year. The festival’s purpose was twofold: to celebrate the harvest and to acknowledge and welcome the dark half of the year. It was believed that on this day, the barriers between the living and the dead were the weakest, blurring the lines between the realms. In the 8th century, the Catholic Church declared November 1st All Saints Day, solidifying the idea that the fragile barrier between the living and the dead was weakest on this night.
It makes sense then that the story of a wandering soul in purgatory would fit into Halloween night. Jack’s presence would be most apparent to the living on October 31st. Further, when pumpkin carving evolved into scaring off unwanted spirits, it makes sense that the scary lantern would live on too.
Pumpkin Carving In 2020
For many, the act of pumpkin carving has very little to do with Jack or the dead. These days, it’s more of a family affair, centered around laughter, creativity, and roasting pumpkin seeds.
It would be amiss of me, though cynical, to not point to the commercialization of pumpkin carving. Choosing a pumpkin can be as mundane as selecting one while on your weekly shop at the grocery store, or it can be a day out to a pumpkin patch with variations of grandeur in-between. There are many methods vendors solicit to make the most of this seasonal activity. Rightly so, pumpkin farming is big business.
The average cost of pumpkin was $4.18 in 2020, up from $4.04 in 2019. Over 150 million Americans (or 46% of the population) planned to carve pumpkins this year – up by around 6 million compared to last year. This translates to nearly $700 million spent on making jack-o-lanterns in the US alone.
Part of moving and living in another country is about embracing their traditions, so of course, I carved a pumpkin this year! After all, it’s a safe and fun activity in the time of a pandemic too.
I’ve always been one to buy my pumpkin at the grocery store, so it was a first for me to go to a pumpkin patch this year. I had no idea what this would entail. I thought it might be like apple picking, with a field full of pumpkins, and you select one. A rustic experience, if you will. I was entirely wrong. Instead, it was like a fair, with rides, food trucks, a maze, and a haunted house.
As for the pumpkin options themselves, I was stunned. Everything size of pumpkin seemed available. There were tiny ones that I could juggle if I had that skill, to large pumpkins that I could not lift. That was actually the threshold Shira and I had to enforce. If I couldn’t lift it, we couldn’t buy it (she had a sore wrist that day, otherwise, we could’ve gone bigger as she’s stronger).
We left our giant fruits sitting whole on our porch so they wouldn’t decay before the big day. There are many squirrels around too, so I reckoned that they’ll see our carved pumpkins as a delicious pre-hibernation treat. Anyway, Sunday was the big carving day! I didn’t have a plan going in, just a face and to have some fun with it. I didn’t buy any tools either – figured the kitchen knives would suffice. I think our pumpkins look fantastic!
Click through the slide show below to our 2020 pumpkin journey.
Pumpkin carving is the evolution of a Celtic tradition that began in the late 18th century to celebrate Halloween in many Western cultures. While carving, like costumes, used to be about scaring away wandering souls, the practice has evolved to express individualism and creativity. Whatever the motivation, I love October due to pumpkin carving. There’s something charming about walking through the neighborhood, seeing displayed, lit pumpkins, brightening up the fall nights. Carve on my American friends. Carve on.