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Why do we carve pumpkins for Halloween?

The summer heat is fading away, and the leaves are changing colors: Fall is in the air. Along with seeking out all available pumpkin spice and wearing cute sweaters, autumn gives people other urges as well — like the urge to carve faces into vegetables. It may sound like a silly thing to do, but pumpkin carving actually has a very long tradition dating back hundreds of years. We might not do it for the same reasons as our ancestors, but it is still a fun tradition enjoyed by many.

History of jack-o’-lanterns

Photo of a jack-o-lantern
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The history of carving jack-o’-lanterns comes from Ireland in the 1800s. There was a legend about a man named Stingy Jack that explains the tradition. Stingy Jack was a trickster, and one day he tricked the Devil into promising to not take his soul after he died. When he died, he went to heaven. Of course, he could not be allowed in because of the mean things he did in life, so he was sent to the Devil. The Devil, staying true to his promise, could not let him in, which forced Jack to wander the darkness in between worlds for all eternity. The Devil gave Jack an ember to help him light the way. Jack hollowed out a turnip that he was carrying to serve as a lantern. This was called a jack-o’-lantern.

The festival of Samhain took place at the end of the harvest season. You might know it as Halloween. It was designed to welcome the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” This was a time when the barriers between the spirit world and the human world would break down and allow the supernatural to walk among the living. People carved jack-o’-lanterns as a way to protect themselves from evil spirits, especially that prankster Stingy Jack. Since pumpkins and gourds were hard to come by in Ireland in the 19th century, people relied on turnips for their carving needs.

The switch to pumpkins

Photo of jack-o-lanterns
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As people emigrated from Ireland and Scotland to North America, they brought their traditions with them. Unfortunately, America did not have many turnips, but it wasn’t long before they discovered that pumpkins, which are native to the United States, make wonderful jack-o’-lanterns.

It is believed that the idea of carving pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns hit the mainstream in North America after the release of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820. In the story, the Headless Horseman is commonly depicted with a carved pumpkin for a head. The earliest written mention of pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns appears in a newspaper in 1834.

In modern times

Photo of hands reaching into a hollowed-out pumpkin and pulling out seeds
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Pumpkins are highly sought after in the Fall for decoration, cooking, and carving. In the United States, over 2 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced each year. For a crop that isn’t frequently used in cooking, that makes for a lot of jack-o’-lanterns.

Today, jack-o’-lanterns are not used in any ritualistic sense as they were in the days of yore. They are instead used for festive decoration and having a good time with friends and family. There are even festivals and competitions devoted to the carving of pumpkins! Pick-your-own pumpkin patches are growing in popularity, allowing families to choose their own pumpkins in a fun, festive family activity.

Keep the spirits away

Photo of jack-o-lanterns
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Don’t forget to make your own jack-o’-lanterns this Halloween to keep away that pesky Stingy Jack. And when you see illuminated faces peering at you from every porch step and windowsill, you’ll know that they you are protected from all the evil spirits that roam the streets this time of year.