It’s Halloween History Week with your friendly neighborhood History Geek!
The Jack O’Lantern
For as long as Halloween has been an official holiday, people celebrated it by carving jack o’lanterns. This tradition was started in Ireland where, in earlier times, people carved faces into potatoes, turnips, and other vegetables that were plentiful during harvest seasons, and they would put a candle inside the vegetable and leave it out on their porch. After the Irish came to America, they brought the tradition with them and pumpkins, native to America, became the face of the Jack o’Lantern.
The carving of the Jack o’lantern was based on an Irish folk tale called The Legend of Stingy Jack; a man who played tricks on the devil. When Stingy Jack died, he was not allowed into heaven, and the devil didn’t want his soul either, so he was left wandering the earth, using a carved turnip with a candle in it as a lantern to guide his way; hence the name Jack O’Lantern, which actually is a shortened version of Jack of the Lantern; the name given to Stingy Jack after he died.
During the times when superstition superceded science to explain situations, people would leave carved turnips on their porches because they believed that the light on the porch would ward away demons, evil spirits, vampires, and the devil and would protect the house from the night in which many believed was when the veil between the living world and the world of the dead was at it’s thinnest (to be told in tomorrow’s entry) and evil could come through and torment the living. Today, pumpkin carving and pumpkin painting has become an activity that the whole family can enjoy and even engage in friendly competition of who can carve or paint the best pumpkin. No longer are they used to ward off anything evil. Over the centuries, Jack o’Lanterns have become more than just a spooky Halloween tradition. It’s now also the smiling symbol of a successful harvest season, and is the most popular Halloween and harvest decoration.