From bats to candy corn to witches flying under the low-handing full moon, Halloween takes the cake for fun imagery, and nothing says Halloween more than the glowing jack-o-lantern. Carved to let the interior candlelight shine, the jack-o-lantern has been the symbol illuminating this spooky, ghoulish October night for as long as most of us can remember. But one has to wonder — why pumpkins? Well, if you look back in time, the pumpkin wasn’t the face of Halloween.
This spooky tradition doesn’t start in the States but rather goes back over the pond to the British Isles, specifically Ireland. Halloween is a Christianized version of the traditional pagan festival known as Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new year. Samhain is known to be a pinnacle seasonal transition point. The life of summer and the death of winter merge on this one day, which means that the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest, allowing spirits to wander the earth.
People celebrating Samhain did so with mixed excitement and slight fear, as they needed to protect themselves from malicious spirits, the most infamous of them being Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack was once a living man who, after tricking the Devil on two separate occasions, was banned from both Heaven and Hell. At Hell’s doors, the Devil gave him a parting gift — an ember of Hell to light his way, as he was cursed to wander for eternity on Earth. Supposedly to protect the ember, Stingy Jack placed the ember into a hollowed-out and carved turnip, acting as a mock lantern.
From the folklore, people carved root vegetables like potatoes, radishes, beets, and most popularly turnips. The faces wouldn’t be cute or friendly as they acted like talismans, frightening Stingy Jack and other spirits away from peoples’ homes.
Fast forward a few decades and the immigration from Ireland to the U.S. saw a diffusion of culture from one country to another. While there were still traditional root vegetables in the U.S., but none were as abundant as pumpkins. These cheerful orange gourds, native to North America, have a softer flesh than turnips and radishes, meaning pumpkins are much easier to carve. The practice of using pumpkins became more practical and overshadowed the traditional root vegetables. During the Victorian Era — with its imagery and love of anthropomorphized vegetables — took the carved pumpkin and ran with it. So with fashionable artistry, the image of the jack-o-lantern became further carved into the Halloween culture.SKM: below-content placeholder