Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?

What we know about the origin of pumpkin carving and jack-o'-lanterns

Jack-O-Lanterns carved for Halloween
Maurizio Cigognetti/ Photographer's Choice/ Getty Images

The name "jack-o'-lantern" is British in origin and dates from the 17th century, when it literally meant "man with a lantern" (i.e., a night watchman).

It was also a popular nickname for the natural phenomenon known as ignis fatuus (fool's fire), or "will o' the wisp," those mysterious, flickering blue lights sometimes seen over wetlands at night and associated in folklore with mischievous ghosts, goblins, fairies and the like.

By the late 1800s, people were applying the name "jack-o'-lantern" to a homemade object more commonly known before that as a "turnip lantern," described by Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire as "a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it."

On both Hallowmas (All Saints Day, Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2), Catholic children would carry turnip lanterns while begging door-to-door for soul cakes to commemorate the dead.

Turnip lanterns were also carried by celebrants parading the streets on Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day.

Scary Faces

It should come as no surprise that turnip lanterns were put to ill use by pranksters. "It is a common device of mischievous lads for frightening belated wayfarers on the road," noted Darlington in 1887.

A glossary of the regional speech published by the English Dialect Society in 1898 defined "turnip lantern" (or "to'nup lantern") thus:

...a large turnip, hollowed out, with mouth, eyes, and nose made in it to imitate the human face. A candle is put inside, and it is used by silly persons for the purpose of affrighting people simpler than themselves.

Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch recalls a memorable jack-o'-lantern prank in the pages of The Cornish Magazine, published in 1899:

The mischievous youngsters took the hatch (the lower half of the front door) and having tied to a nail driven in its centre a large well-lighted turnip lantern cut to represent a grotesque, grinning, human face, carried it to the top of the house, laying it flat over the chimney, the lantern, suspended by a strong cord, being let down through the chimney to such a depth as to be visible to anyone looking up from below the fireplace being open. In a very brief time the smoke, prevented by the hatch from escaping through the chimney, began to fill the house. Everyone quickly commenced to cough and complain of the irritation caused by the smoke. One of the women of the house bent down and looked up the chimney to ascertain what was amiss, and the ugly face met her gaze, causing her to shriek and go into hysterics.

It's a bit hard to swallow the image of a sane adult literally being driven to hysterics at the sight of a turnip-sized jack-o'-lantern in this day and age, but those, as they say, were simpler times.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

According to an oft-repeated tale (surely invented after the fact and by an Englishman, no doubt), the jack-o'-lantern took its name from a roguish Irishman known as Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil into guaranteeing that he wouldn't go to hell for his many and various sins.

When Jack died, however, he found to his dismay that the arrangement had also barred him from heaven, so he went down below, banged on the gates of hell, and demanded his due from the Devil. Wouldn't you know it, though the latter did keep his promise to save Jack from depths of Hades, he did so by dooming him to wander the surface of the earth for all eternity with only an ember of hellfire to light his way?

Thenceforth, according to legend, Stingy Jack was known by the name of Jack O'Lantern.

Tradition

It wasn't until Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o'-lanterns to North America that the more commonly available (and easier to carve) pumpkin came to be used for that purpose, and not until the mid-to-late 19th century that pumpkin carving was an established Halloween tradition.

This tidy instructional narrative comes from a turn-of-the-century schoolbook, Victoire and Perdue's The New Century First Reader:

Will and Fred went to the barn.
They got a pumpkin.
The pumpkin was large.
The pumpkin was yellow.
The boys cut the top off.
They cut the seeds out.
They cut four holes in the pumpkin.
They put a candle in the pumpkin.
The light shone out.
The boys said, "See our Jack-o'-Lantern."

Further Reading