It’s not Halloween until I’m elbow deep in the stringy guts of a pumpkin that I have no intention of using once I’m done carving. Whether I’m challenging myself with a freehand-drawn picture or just carving out two eyes and a mouth, diving into the “art” that is pumpkin carving is such an integral part of the spooky season that I rarely miss a year.
How did we go from using pumpkins as a primary source of food to picking one from a patch, paying 50 cents/pound for it just to cut it up into an arbitrary shape? The pumpkin I carved this year has a pug’s face on it -- which has decidedly nothing to do with Halloween. We’ve obviously come a long way.
It’s thanks, in part, to “Stingy Jack.” He was the subject of an Irish legend wherein Jack tricked the Devil twice over, the result being that he could not take Jack’s soul when he died. Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven either, though, for being such a menace, so Jack’s soul was forced to travel with just a burning coal to light the way. He put the coal into a hollowed-out turnip and has been roaming around with it ever since. “Stingy Jack” became “Jack Lantern,” and, in turn, “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people would carve scary faces into turnips or potatoes and place them in doors or windows to ward Stingy Jack away, as well as any other wandering, evil spirits. The English did the same, only they’d carve into beets. The same veggies were often stuffed with candles or wood embers and carried around to celebrate the harvest -- or, if you were a kid, to prank your friends into thinking Jack was coming after them -- which explains why carving jack o' lanterns is such a seasonal endeavor.
When immigrants from the U.K. came over to America, they brought the practice with them. Since they hadn’t had pumpkins across the pond (the gourd is native to the U.S.), they hadn’t used them before, but pumpkins are bigger and sturdier, making for better jack o’ lanterns.
The story of Jack, though, only came to be because there wasn’t any other explanation for spooky, floating specks of light that would appear in the dark of night above swamps or marshes. Now we know that these iridescent orbs that people called everything from hinkypunks to corpse candles were likely caused by decomposing plant matter emitting gases, which would ignite as they oxidized from contact with heat. Obviously, the Stingy Jack myth is less boring.
The jack o’ lantern went from tricky, spirit-evading craft to Halloween decor as early as 1892, when the mayor of Atlanta threw a party and his wife placed pumpkins carved with faces around the venue.
Women truly deserve credit for everything.