When I was carving my Halloween pumpkin into a Jack o'Lantern yesterday, I looked right into his face and began pondering the history behind what I was doing. I wondered, "why the heck do we carve faces into pumpkins? When and where did this all start?" So, I became determined to get to the bottom of it all. However, this was not an easy task to accomplish! There is a lot of information that was consistent, however I also found a lot of stories which had similar bases but different details. So, I've gathered it all together and here is what I've discovered. I hope it helps you, your friends and your family better understand your time-honored tradition.
I found that the term "Jack O'Lantern" (or Jack of the lantern) originates from a mid-17th century Irish folklore about a man named Stingy Jack who tricked the devil into not taking his soul to hell. However, when Jack died he was not welcomed into heaven and was them forced to aimlessly roam the earth having only a small burning coal inside a carved out turnip to light his path and ward of evil spirits. The stories behind Stingy Jack tell different tales, but they all eventually settle on his turnip with a light inside.
You may be wondering how a turnip would turn into a pumpkin that we are accustomed to today. Well, once this legend became popular, the people of the British isles began carving scary faces into gourds and potatoes to ward off the evil spirits that roam the earth as well as Stingy Jack himself. Once the immigrants of these regions came to the United States they discovered the native pumpkin. They realized that pumpkins, being larger and easier to carve, would make a much better "Jack O'Lantern".
I then began to wonder why these Jack's were carved only in the Fall. However, I realized it really has to do with the history of Halloween itself. All across the world, the time which Halloween is celebrated has different origins and significances but they all seem to resolve themselves around the remembrances of the dead. Many cultures believe that during this time of year the spirits (harmful as well as harmless) are able to pass between the earth and the afterlife. There are religious beliefs that use jack's to not only ward of evil spirits but to welcome their deceased relatives.
In today's culture, we use them as a Halloween decoration and fun tradition for kids. So, grab that perfect pumpkin and get carvin'!