There’s no more classic Halloween image than a glowing jack-o’-lantern perched in a window or on a porch, setting a merrily macabre mood. For decades, carving a pumpkin has been a beloved fall tradition in America, celebrated with parties, festivals, and televised competitions.
The backstory of jack-o’-lanterns, including how they came to star in Halloween decor and why they’re carved in the first place, is a tale worth telling. Although the legendary Headless Horseman and his hurled pumpkin have been scaring Americans for generations, jack-o’-lanterns actually trace their origins back centuries to Old World traditions in countries including Ireland, England, and Scotland.
Along the way, pagan rituals, freaky folktales, and natural phenomena have interwoven to create a fascinating history that’s part fact, part fiction, and all frightfully fun.
Early Celtic rituals
The concept of using a round fruit or vegetable to depict a human face goes back thousands of years in some northern European Celtic cultures. “It may even have had pre-Christian origins that evolved from the custom of head veneration, or potentially even represented war trophies taken from your foes,” says Nathan Mannion, senior curator for EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin. “It’s quite macabre, but it may have symbolized the severed heads of your enemies.”
The idea took deeper hold during the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was originally celebrated on November 1 and inspired many traditions of modern-day Halloween. On Samhain eve, October 31, spirits of the dead were thought to mingle with the living. To ward off restless souls, people donned costumes and carved frightening faces into root vegetables such as beets, potatoes, and turnips—usually plentiful after the recent harvest.
(Related: These paper crafts bring the party on Day of the Dead.)
A practical purpose also evolved, says Mannion. “Metal lanterns were quite expensive, so people would hollow out root vegetables,” he says. “Over time people started to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without extinguishing the ember.”
Visitors to the National Museum of Ireland—Country Life, in County Mayo, can see firsthand how terrifying those turnips could look. A plaster cast of a carved turnip lantern common during the early 1900s—called a “ghost turnip” and complete with craggy teeth and sinister eye slits—haunts the museum’s permanent exhibitions.
Human foibles and nature’s tricks
The origins of jack-o’-lanterns aren’t limited to produce; the term also referred to people. According to Merriam-Webster, in 17th-century Britain it was common to call a man whose name you didn’t know “Jack.” A night watchman, for example, became known as “Jack-of-the-Lantern,” or jack-o’-lantern.
Then there’s the 18th-century Irish folktale of Stingy Jack, an unsavory fellow often said to be a blacksmith who had a fondness for mischief and booze. Dozens of versions abound, but one recurring storyline is that Stingy Jack tricked the devil twice. When Jack died, he found himself barred from heaven—and from hell. But the devil took some pity on Jack, giving him an ember of coal to light his turnip lantern as he wandered between both places for eternity—again inspiring the nickname Jack-of-the-Lantern, or jack-o’-lantern.
“It was also used as a cautionary tale, a morality tale, that Jack was a soul trapped between two worlds, and if you behaved like he did you could end up like that, too,” Mannion says.
The story also helped explain ignis fatuus, a natural phenomenon that occurs in marshlands and bogs—such as those in Ireland’s countryside—producing flickering lights as gases from decomposing organic matter combust. Also known as fool’s fire, fairy lights, will-o’-the-wisp, and eventually, jack-o’-lantern, it often seemed like “a floating flame that would move away from travelers,” Mannion says. “If you were to try to follow the light, you could go into a sinkhole or bog, or drown. People thought it was Jack of the Lantern, a lost soul, or a ghost.”
As Ireland began the process of nationwide electrification in the 1930s, the tale of Stingy Jack started to fade. “The minute the lights came on, a lot of the stories lost their potency, and people’s imaginations weren’t running as wild,” Mannion says.
Coming to America
But by then, the tradition of jack-o’-lanterns had already taken root in the New World, showing up in early American literature and media. Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne referenced one in his 1835 short story “The Great Carbuncle,” and again in 1852 with “Feathertop,” about a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin head. According to Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, the first image of a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern is likely one that appeared in an 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly.
Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” first published in 1820 and republished in 1858, propelled the pumpkin into American culture like never before. In the short story’s climax, the Headless Horseman chucks an uncarved pumpkin at Ichabod Crane, who is never seen again. But most images of the terrifying villain portray him holding a fiery jack-o’-lantern, which helped the story become a perennial Halloween favorite.
“The legend is considered a Halloween story, probably because it was one of the first internationally well-known horror stories,” says Sara Mascia, executive director of The Historical Society of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. “The pumpkin became associated with that element of fear, and that’s why the jack-o’-lantern comes out, because it’s with the galloping Hessian [soldier], the Headless Horseman, whatever you want to call him.”
(Related: Witch hunt tourism is lucrative. It also obscures a tragic history.)
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the influx of Irish immigrants, who brought their traditions and folktales, also helped shape the story of jack-o’-lanterns in America. They discovered that pumpkins, not indigenous to Ireland but common in North America, were much better suited to carving than turnips or potatoes.
As more Americans began to celebrate Halloween, the jack-o’-lantern emerged as its most iconic image. A review in the Atlanta Constitution described the 1892 “All Halloween” party at the home of Atlanta mayor William Hemphill in glowing terms: “Never in the annals of Atlanta society has a more unique and brilliant entertainment been given,” with decor showcasing “all sorts of smiling lanterns made of pumpkins, cleverly carved with faces.”
The carved gourds have come to serve as much more than mere decoration. Despite their often fearsome look, jack-o’-lanterns now symbolize a welcoming sense of community. “At Halloween, you don’t go up to someone’s house unless they have a jack-o’-lantern,” Ott says. “It’s about cementing a community, projecting good values, neighborliness. The pumpkin and jack-o’-lantern take on those meanings, too.”
Over the past decade, the jack-o’-lantern’s popularity hasn’t dimmed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 1 billion tons of pumpkins were harvested in 2018. Many end up as jack-o’-lanterns on porches—although a few make television appearances on shows like HGTV’s Pumpkin Wars or Food Network’s Outrageous Pumpkins.
Pumpkins during a pandemic
This year the coronavirus is putting a damper on Halloween celebrations, but some pumpkin patches and festivals are proceeding with caution. Normally Sleepy Hollow, New York, and neighboring Tarrytown host dozens of events honoring the namesake legend. In 2020, which marks the bicentennial of the story’s original publishing, the schedule is drastically scaled back. But the Great Jack O’ Lantern Blaze, illuminated by more than 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins, is open with reduced capacity, advance ticket purchases, and social distancing.
In Gretna, Nebraska, Vala’s Pumpkin Patch offers 55 acres of pumpkins, several attractions, and this year an online “Live Crowd Tracker” to let guests know when it’s reaching capacity. At the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s popular Autumn at the Arboretum event, masks and advance registration are required to explore the artful scenes featuring more than 90,000 pumpkins and gourds.
(Related: Coronavirus is forcing America’s ‘Halloween towns’ to make scary decisions.)
Meanwhile, organizers of the Keene Pumpkin Festival in New Hampshire, which set a Guinness world record for the most jack-o’-lanterns, have shifted to a “self-managed” format, encouraging residents to place their carved creations in front of their homes and businesses. In Atlanta, one small business owner is bringing the pumpkin patch to the people, with a “Pumpkin Truck” delivery service that hauls the seasonal staples to customers’ neighborhoods.
To avoid catching or spreading the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that revelers in areas where COVID-19 is active refrain from traveling to rural festivals.
Luckily, you can still get into the Halloween spirit the time-honored way: by carving a jack-o’-lantern at home—just like humans have done for centuries, bringing some light to a dark fall night.
Blane Bachelor is a Florida-born, Berlin-based writer who covers travel and outdoor adventure for the Washington Post, New York Times, and Outside, among others. She’s also a Halloween superfan. Follow her on Instagram.
The term jack-o'-lantern has been used in American English to describe a lantern made from a hollowed-out pumpkin since the 19th century, but the term originated in 17th-century Britain, where it was used to refer to a man with a lantern or to a night watchman.What is the American history of Jack-o-Lanterns? ›
The term jack-o'-lantern has been used in American English to describe a lantern made from a hollowed-out pumpkin since the 19th century, but the term originated in 17th-century Britain, where it was used to refer to a man with a lantern or to a night watchman.When were Jack-o-Lanterns first used in America? ›
According to Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, the first image of a pumpkin jack-o'-lantern is likely one that appeared in an 1867 issue of Harper's Weekly.What were 3 the first Jack-o-Lanterns actually made from? ›
In Ireland, where the tradition began, pumpkins don't grow. Before immigrants began traveling to America, jack-o-lanterns were actually made from turnips and potatoes. People used them to scare away Jack and other malicious spirits.What people brought the tradition of jack o lanterns to the us? ›
Jack-o'-lanterns carved from pumpkins are a yearly Halloween tradition that developed in the United States when Celtic Americans brought their root vegetable carving tradition with them.What is the tradition of jack o lanterns and where does it come from? ›
In Ireland, people started to carve demonic faces out of turnips to frighten away Jack's wandering soul. When Irish immigrants moved to the U.S., they began carving jack-o'-lanterns from pumpkins, as these were native to the region.Why is pumpkin associated with Halloween? ›
In the 19th century, when a lot of Irish immigrated to the United States, they brought the Halloween tradition of using vegetables to scare the spirits away. In America, the Irish discovered a new vegetable, the pumpkin, which is harvested in the fall, and began using it to scare the evil spirits.What is the significance of the pumpkin on Halloween? ›
Hundreds of years ago in Ireland, Halloween tradition involved carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns in order to scare the evil spirits passing away through the Irish farms, since then it has become a vegetable synonymous to the festival, which is mostly celebrated by Americans.Who carved the first Jack O '- lantern? ›
The first known use or creation of the jack-o-lantern in the United States was reportedly in the early 1800s as Irish immigrants arrived bringing the tradition with them. Lanterns (made of turnips or other gourds) in early times- were intended to ward off evil spirits.What vegetable were Jack-o-Lanterns originally carved from? ›
As it was naturally dark in pre-industrial revolution Ireland, many would carve turnips, potatoes or other root vegetables and add coals or candles to create makeshift lanterns to help guide those celebrating. Occasionally these would be carved with faces, a tradition that continues to this day in Britain and Ireland.
Before we carved pumpkins, the Irish chiseled creepy faces onto turnips.What was carved to make Jack-o-Lanterns before pumpkins? ›
Did you know jack-o'-lanterns were once carved from turnips? Ancient Celtic cultures were known to carve turnips and place embers inside to ward off evil spirits. That's because Ireland didn't have pumpkins.Who bought Jack O lanterns to America? ›
The practice of decorating jack o'lanterns originated in Ireland, where they used large turnips, potatoes, or beets. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities.What was carved before pumpkins? ›
Today, carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns is ubiquitous with Halloween. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, chiseling ghoulish grins into turnips was the more common practice (at least in Ireland and other Celtic nations).What are jack o lanterns supposed to scare away? ›
Unbeknownst to the ancient Celts, their fall tradition of Samhain and of keeping evil spirits at bay would evolve throughout the centuries. Samhain morphed into Halloween, and the myth of Stingy Jack and the use of jack-o'-lanterns to scare off his evil spirit arose.Where did lanterns originate? ›
Lanterns have roots in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. The modern version, however, is often credited to John H. Irwin, an American inventor with over 200 patents to his name. He invented the oil lantern in 1862.What does a pumpkin represent in the Bible? ›
READ 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” SAY: We created a new pumpkin by cleaning out the yucky insides and carving a happy face. This is a new creation, a jack-o-lantern, with a joy-filled face. Jesus does that with us.Can Christians carve pumpkins? ›
Christians can carve a pumpkin for Halloween that is not scary or a jack-o-lantern but one that shares the message of Jesus, the Light of the World. Here are some free printable stencil templates.Is carving pumpkins pagan? ›
Like Halloween itself, the display and carving of pumpkins — from the lanterns placed inside to the scary faces we pick — has pagan origins that morphed with the passage of time as well as the crossing of an ocean.What is the symbolism of the pumpkin? ›
Now pumpkins on Thanksgiving symbolize more of a happier and uplifting meaning compared to Halloween. Pumpkins mean new life within us, within our family and friends. Basically to me that means just a new beginning and starting over fresh. Did you know that pumpkins also represent strength?
Irish legend has it that this use of jack-o'-lantern was named after a fellow named Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack thought he had tricked the devil, but the devil had the last laugh, condemning Jack to an eternity of wandering the planet with only an ember of hellfire for light.What was the largest carved jack o lantern in history? ›
The heaviest jack o'lantern was carved from a pumpkin that weighed 1,217.5 kg (2,684 lb 2 oz), which was grown by Stefano Cutrupi (Italy) in Tuscany, Italy.Can you eat the seeds from a jack-o-lantern? ›
One of my favourite Halloween activities has always been carving pumpkins... and then eating them! That's right, both the seeds and flesh of your Jack-o-Lantern are edible (as long as you get to it before it rots on your doorstep).What happened to Stingy Jack? ›
The devil begged and pleaded, and only upon agreeing to never take Jack's soul to hell was he released. Many years later, when Stingy Jack took his last breath and died, St. Peter refused him entrance into heaven for all his evil deeds. Satan refused him entrance into hell due to their contract.Can you eat pumpkins used for Jack-o-Lanterns? ›
Sure — as long as it is in good condition and hasn't' yet been carved. Pumpkins typically used for jack-o'-lanterns usually are larger, with stringier pulp and more watery flesh. However, you can still eat the jack-o-lantern variety with fairly good results.What ammo does the Jack O Lantern launcher use? ›
|Uses ammo||Explosive Jack 'O Lantern|
|Damage||65 / 60 (Ranged)|
As it was naturally dark in pre-industrial revolution Ireland, many would carve turnips, potatoes or other root vegetables and add coals or candles to create makeshift lanterns to help guide those celebrating.What were Jack-o-Lanterns before pumpkins? ›
Before we carved pumpkins, the Irish chiseled creepy faces onto turnips. Pumpkins with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles are a sure sign of the Halloween season.When were lanterns first used? ›
The lantern has a long history of illumination throughout antiquity. Their first use can be dated all the way back to 230 BC in Ancient China during the Han Dynasty.When did paper lanterns start? ›
Papermaking technology originated from China from at least AD 105 during the Eastern Han Dynasty, but it is unknown exactly when paper became used for lanterns. Poems about paper lanterns start to appear in Chinese history at around the 6th century.
He became known as “Jack of the Lantern" or “jack-o'-lantern" for short. On Halloween, the Irish would hollow out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, and beets. They would put candles inside them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away.Why were turnips used as Jack-o-Lanterns? ›
Did you know jack-o'-lanterns were once carved from turnips? Ancient Celtic cultures were known to carve turnips and place embers inside to ward off evil spirits. That's because Ireland didn't have pumpkins.What was carved before pumpkins for Halloween? ›
Today, carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns is ubiquitous with Halloween. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, chiseling ghoulish grins into turnips was the more common practice (at least in Ireland and other Celtic nations).What folktale are Jack-o-Lanterns named after? ›
According to History, the name jack-o'-lantern originates from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack, who invited the devil to have a drink with him before refusing to pay for his own drink. The story goes that he then convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so that he could pay for their drinks.How were the first Jack-o-Lanterns made in the United States different from those made in Europe? ›
How were the first jack o lanterns made in the United States different from those made in Europe? They were made of pumpkins.What did old lanterns run on? ›
A kerosene lamp (also known as a paraffin lamp in some countries) is a type of lighting device that uses kerosene as a fuel. Kerosene lamps have a wick or mantle as light source, protected by a glass chimney or globe; lamps may be used on a table, or hand-held lanterns may be used for portable lighting.What did lanterns look like in the 1800s? ›
In the early 1800s, almost all outbuildings in America possessed a round lantern with a conical top, with small holes punched in design on its tin sides.Who was the first lantern in history? ›
230 BC. The first evidence of lanterns can be found in Ancient China during the Han Dynasty.What is the top of a lantern called? ›
The very top of the lantern that contains the globe retainer.
Traditional paper lanterns were made in the image of myths, things from nature and or in the spirit of local culture. Modern ones have many more different shapes: from traditional dragons to pop icons. They symbolize joy, celebration, good fortune and longevity, and they have role as protectors from evil.
Lanterns at festivals and ceremonies
The sky lantern also started to play a role in Buddhist ceremonies. They believed that the lanterns would carry away their troubles, and would bring good luck and prosperity. The higher the lantern would climb, the more fortune and wealth it would bring.