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Pumpkin History: Why We Carve Jack-o-Lanterns

Every year, I look forward to carving pumpkins with my kids. My son is now old enough to carve one himself, and my daughter likes to watch (as long as she doesn’t have to touch the pumpkin guts!). We usually look for free pumpkin carving templates online or buy a cheap booklet from the store that has patterns and carving tools.

I’ve been carving pumpkins since I was a kid and really never gave much thought to WHY we did it. But, when you’ve got inquisitive kids like mine, it pays it research your answers before they ask the questions. So I recently went looking for some information about pumpkin history and why we carve pumpkins.

Turns out we owe the tradition to the Irish. At least, they’re the ones that started the tradition of carving turnips. Yeah, turnips. But then some Irish settlers to America realized that pumpkins were a heck of a lot bigger and easier to carve and suddenly everyone was carving pumpkins.

pumpkin history jack-o-lanterns

But back to the Irish tradition….

So according to Irish legend, there once was a guy named Stingy Jack. As his name suggests, he wasn’t a philanthropist. In fact, he was a real tightwad. So one day he decided to have drinks with the devil (what WAS he thinking?!), but he was too cheap to buy the drinks and I guess the devil didn’t like going Dutch. So Stingy Jack (who must have been as clever as he was stingy) somehow convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so they could pay for the drinks. The devil obliged and turned into a coin. (Did you know he could do that? I sure didn’t!) But the sight of money must have been too much for Stingy Jack to deal with, so rather than buying drinks, he stuck the coin in his pocket. Turns out he also had a silver cross in his pocket that made it impossible for the devil to return to his former shape. I don’t know how Stingy Jack knew this cross would keep the devil from immediately popping back out of his pocket and whacking Jack upside the head for reneging on their deal, but apparently Jack was versed in the ways to keep the devil at bay. So he kept the evil demon trapped in his pocket for quite a long time. (The legend has no mention of who was running Hell during the devil’s absence, so one can only surmise that the poor souls down there were partying and toasting Jack during their slave master’s absence.)

Anyway, after awhile Jack decided to let the devil out, but only if he promised to leave Jack alone for at least a year. (You’d think Jack would have asked for a longer reprieve than a year, but I’m just telling you what the legend says…) Turns out the devil may be evil, but he keeps his promises, so Jack was safe for a year.

After the year went by, Jack realized he needed to do something else since he certainly hadn’t made a good impression with the devil, so this time he tricked the devil into climbing a tree and then he carved a cross into the trunk, which made it impossible for the devil to come back down. (Where WAS Jack getting these inside tricks on how to trap the devil? Did the devil have an ex-wife who was tipping him off?)

This time, Stingy Jack made the devil promise not to ever bother him again before he let him out of the tree and, once again, the devil kept his promise. (Kind of makes you think the devil was a better guy than ol’ Stingy Jack, huh?)

Eventually, Jack died, but when he got to Heaven, God decided Jack didn’t really belong there after his less-than-holy behavior on earth, so he shipped him off to Hell. But the devil really didn’t like Jack either and didn’t want to spend eternity with him. So he sentenced him to walk the earth forever. But being the nice(r) guy he was, the devil threw Jack a tiny ember from the flames of Hell so he could have something to help him see in the dark as he wandered aimlessly. Jack couldn’t very well carry a hot ember in his hands, so he stuck it in a carved turnip.

The Irish didn’t want this ghostly, dastardly “Jack of the lantern” anywhere near them, so they started carving turnips to keep him away. (I’m not really sure WHY carved turnips would keep him away, but maybe that part of the legend was lost.) Over time, “Jack of the lantern” became “jack-o-lantern,” Irish immigrants realized pumpkins were way easier to carve than turnips, and almost everyone forgot this pumpkin history all started with drinks with the devil.

Who knew?

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