Why Do We Carve Pumpkins on Halloween?

Irish folk tale that eventually became the tradition is the reason why pumpkins are curved on Halloween. However, pumpkins were not what was curved at first neither did they remain the only thing that people carved for this holiday. Stingy Jack, the protagonist of the folk tale made his first lantern out of turnips. Today, in many parts of the world, there is a whole list of things people carve on Halloween:

  • Pumpkins – the trend of pumpkin carving started with a great 19th-century migration of Irish people to the U.S.
  • Turnips – Jack from folk tale carved turnips and it was the original Halloween tradition practiced multiple centuries before pumpkins.
  • Avocados – Avocados have no particular history point that made them the object of carving, but are never the less very popular part of Halloween art as they are even used for costumes. The same applies to oranges, water lemons and pineapples.
Avocado Carved into Halloween Skull
Avocado Carved into Halloween Skull

How Did Halloween Pumpkin Carving Start?

According to Irish folk tale, there was a man called stingy Jack. While there are different versions of this story all of them agree on one thing – Jack was the greatest trickster that ever lived.

Story of Stingy Jack

Painting of a drunkard Jack who first carved the Halloween turnip
Painting of a drunkard Jack who first carved the Halloween turnip

A few centuries ago, on the soils of the old Ireland, lived a man named Jack. He was a drunkard with a reputation of the one who drinks for twenty. The only attribute he had that managed to exceed his ability to pour beers into his belly was deception. Jack was known for his silver tongue and people across the country believed that Jack could fool anyone and talk his way out of any situation. Rumors have spread so far that the stories of malevolent Jack got inside the underworld reaching Satan himself. When the dark prince heard of such a human being he believed that it is a word about exaggerations. Since stories continued, Satan decided to climb up on the world of the living and check Jack out for himself. The dark prince decided to pretend to be dead and laid down next to the cobblestone path which Jack was going to take after he leaves the pub. And so it was. On his way home, while strolling across the path, Jack stumbled across what at first seemed to him as corps. In a matter of moments, Satan raised and announced to the drunk man that his time has come.

The First Man to Drink Ale with Satan

Jack accepted his fate but asked for one last wish. He wanted to go back to the pub for one last drink. Satan agreed and went with him. When they arrived Satan ordered a whole bulk of alcoholic beverages to be served for the famous drunkard. Jack drunk it all and prove to Satan that his drinking for twenty reputation was no exaggeration. It was time to go. Jack asked for one more thing. Before leaving this world, Jack felt the urge to pay for his last bear and at least once not be a trickster. Since he had no money with him, Jack asked Satan if he could turn into a gold coin he could use to pay. The dark prince agreed. After the transformation was done, Jack took a coin and put it in the pocket where he previously set crucifix. Satan was trapped. The dark prince was unable to transform while standing next to the holy object. He was forced to bargain. After some time the deal was made. Satan gave a promise to Jack that he was not going to touch him for the next ten years.

Apples and Turnips

After a decade Satan came back for Jack. This time it seemed there was no running. However, history repeated itself. Jack wanted to eat one last apple. There was a tree nearby but he was too drunk to climb it and pick fruit which is why he begged the devil to assist him. Satan agreed to do it for him. While the dark prince was climbing Jack encircled the tree with crucifixes and trapped the lord of hell once again. Another deal was struck. This time Satan had to promise never to take Jack to hell. Time passed and mother nature came to take what her’s. Jack died. After stepping into the afterlife Jack went towards the light and came to the gates of heaven where St. Peter stood. He wanted to barge in but Peter did not open the gates. Soon, Jack was told he was forbidden from entering heaven. Since he had nowhere else to go, and couldn’t trick his way in, Jack turned around and went towards hell. However, it turned out that in the last deal Jack tricked himself. Satan was the only one capable of allowing souls to enter his domain but was trapped in a promise he made to Jack – that he was never going to take him to hell. Jack was condemned to spend eternity between two worlds. No one knew what abominations lived in the darkness of the no-world. Seeing him going to the abyss Satan felt pity for Jack and gave him a little ember. To keep the light alive, Jack took a turnip out of his pocket, made a whole on her top, and put the ember inside making the first glowing lantern. It is how the tradition of making Jack-o-lanterns was born.

Illustration of Stingy Jack, a man who is considered for the inventor of Halloween pumpkin carving
Illustration of Stingy Jack

Where Are Pumpkins?

In the middle of the 19th century, Ireland was faced with a great hunger that carried away more than a million human lives. In the pursuit of survival and a better future, a great migration to America ensued. With them, Irish immigrants carried their customs. One of them was Halloween. However, when they arrived on the soils of the new continent they saw it was plentiful with pumpkins. In addition to that, it turned out that pumpkins are easier to curve and light a fire inside as they were much bigger too. It is how pumpkins pushed out turnips and upgraded the tradition to world scales.

Why Did Irishmen Decide to Carve Turnips and Light Fires Like Stingy Jack?

After reading this story, a natural thing to ask would be why did Irishmen decide to take exactly this folk tale as a foundation for one of their traditions. The answer lies in Halloween’s dark history and ancient Celts who are the direct ancestors of Irish people. While this topic is very broad, briefly explained, ancient Celts celebrated Halloween under the name on Samhain on October 31st which was the new year’s eve. Amongst many other things, they believed that it is the time when the veil between the two worlds is the thinnest and that ghosts and spirits come to earth. Jack, who was neither in hell or heaven, was destined to roam in no-world territories. The veil was part of no-world. In there, he protected himself against darkness and spirits with the gloving turnip. It is why people thought of it as an effective way to prevent other side abominations from sticking to their houses. As it is the case today, Irishmen used to put carved turnips at their doorsteps and edges of porches and windows believing it was going to frighten and repel dark creatures who came to ravish the land of the living.

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