October 1st strikes the calendar and already, the aisles of our favorite department stores are filled with all the Halloween themed items and decorations you can imagine. Among all the symbols that represent this holiday, carved pumpkins are the most iconic. We can find them everywhere from pumpkin-shaped candy and decorations, pumpkin spice lattes, and even shower gels, but why? How did carved pumpkins become a Halloween staple?
It all started in Europe. For centuries, carving vegetables was a common and easy way of creating decorations. They mostly carved turnips, but once Europeans migrated to America, they switched the turnips for pumpkins. This tradition of carving vegetables began as a way to protect themselves from evil spirits, which were thought to arrive with the dark and cold winter season.
Irish immigrants brought the tradition of carving Jack O’ Lanterns with them because of the legend of a man named Stingy Jack. The legend says that Stingy Jack tricked the Devil for monetary gain. When he died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven, and neither would the Devil allow him into hell, so his spirit was forced to roam the earth for eternity. The people of Ireland began carving evil faces onto turnips to scare off Jack’s soul.
Now, what does all of this have to do with Halloween? Well, this holiday originated as a Celtic festival named Samhain that was celebrated in ancient Ireland, which marked the end of summer and a new year beginning November 1st. It was believed that, during the festival, the souls of the people who had died during that year would cross to the Otherworld, but others would return to visit their homes in the mortal realm. Later, in the 18th century, the Roman Catholic Church established Saints Day on November 1st to overshadow the pagan holiday, so Halloween was pushed back to October 31st. Some traditions held during Samhain have influenced the traditions we now celebrate during Halloween, such as trick or treating, wearing costumes, and pulling pranks. The legend of Stingy Jack was later incorporated into the holiday, and that is why we carve pumpkins to this day.
For those of you who still haven’t tried carving a Jack O’ Lantern, I encourage you to embrace this old tradition. Go to your local supermarket and get yourself some tools and a pumpkin and get creative. Have fun carving!