Pumpkin carving has been a part of American Halloween tradition for the better part of a hundred years and like most people, I really never understood the connection. I knew it was suppose to be a lantern of sorts, but for whom was it lighting the way on Halloween?
Pumpkins have been around in this country for centuries. There were first cultivated by the Native Americans who softened this tough vegetable by roasted them on the fire, stewing them or even boiling pumpkin pieces like potatoes. Pumpkins were on the menu that very first Thanksgiving in 1621, and from that point on, became a part of traditional Harvest time meals.
From Thanksgiving meals to jack O’Lanterns; how exactly did we make the leap to carving pumpkins at Halloween? This tradition of pumpkin carving has it’s roots with the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain.
The Celts of early Britain celebrated the pagan holiday of Samhain at the end of Harvest time, believing this to be a time of high spiritual activity. Samhain was when the veil between earth and the afterlife would be lifted, and the spirits of the dead could reach over to possess the bodies of the living. To prevent the spirits from seizing their bodies, those early Celts would extinguish the lamps in their homes and march around their towns while making as much noise as possible. Crazy costumes and hijinks also served to scare off the spirits and to light the way, the villagers carried lanterns of carved turnips.
That carved turnip also figured into the Irish legend of the Jack O’Lantern. Jack was a mean and drunken old man who once tricked the devil into climbing an apple tree, then surrounded the tree with crosses to prevent old Satan from climbing back down. As the story goes, Jack left the devil perched on the apple branches until he extracted a promise that his soul would not be taken to Hell.
When Jack eventually died, his meanness kept him out of Heaven and true to his word, the devil wouldn’t let Jack into Hell either. He was doomed to walk in darkness for eternity, until the devil threw him a glowing ember from hell. To carry the ember, Jack placed it into a carved turnip and became known in Irish folk lore as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O’Lantern.
When the Irish came to America in the 1800s, they brought along with them the tale of Jack O’Lantern and the tradition of scaring off Jack and other wayward spirits with lanterns. They found the American pumpkin much easier to carve than a turnip, and from that ancient legend, the tradition of carving pumpkins for Halloween was born.