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Revealed: The Disturbing yet Fascinating History of Jack O’ Lanterns and Halloween

Why we celebrate Celtic legends, pumpkins, and the dead on October 31

Pumpkins carved with menacing faces and lit from insides below a full moon and a crow sitting on top of one.
Jack O Lanterns keeping Stingy Jack from them on Halloween

The time-honored tradition of carving pumpkins and Halloween have become iconic symbols of October. But did you know that the history of Jack O’ Lanterns has deep roots that blend ancient Celtic practices, Christian beliefs, and folklore?

The Festival of Samhain

Over 2000 years ago, the Celtics, who lived in the area we now know as the United Kingdom, Northern France, and Ireland, would celebrate the Festival of Samhain.

The Celtic Festival celebrates the end of harvest and the onset of winter when the forces of darkness and decay were said to cover the earth. It became an agricultural celebration where the Celts would build large bonfires to the gods in thanks for the harvest and to ask for a bountiful growing season the following year. 

The Celtics also believed that the lines between the living and the dead would blur at this time, allowing the deceased to walk among the living. They often dressed as animals and monsters to avoid being captured. 

A desolate dark cemetery depicting the Festival of Samhaim when the Celts beleived the dead could walk the earth.

By the 9th century, Christianity replaced many Celtic traditions. In 1000 A.D., the Catholic Church decreed November 1 Souls’ Day to honor the dead. Many suggest this was the church’s way of bringing the Celtic festival of the dead into Christian observance.

Large bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils were common in both traditions. Over many centuries, the holidays, All Saints’ Day celebration, also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English, meaning All Saints’ Day), and Samhain would merge. Now, we know them as Halloween. Although the Catholic Church still celebrates All Saints’ Day. 

The Tale of Stingy Jack, The Devil, and Halloween

This is where the pumpkin, or rather the turnip, shows up in our story.

Irish folklore tells of Jack, a mischievous man who decided to trick the Devil for his own gain. This did not go over with the Devil. When he died, the Devil and God forbade him from entering either heaven or hell.

The Devil sent Jack off into the night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack placed the coal inside a carved-out turnip, creating the first “jack-o’-lantern.” 

During the “festival of Samhain, when the Celtics believed that spirits could pass through to the world of the living, they began making their versions of Jack’s Lantern. Hoping to keep Stingy Jack from visiting their home on October 31, they would carve scary faces into turnips, rutabagas, or potatoes. Then, they would place them in doors and windows to drive away evil spirits and Jack.

Eventually, the Irish began immigrating to the U.S. and discovered the native pumpkin. Not only was it plentiful and larger, but it was also hollow. This squash proved easy to carve, making it a suitable replacement for the turnip.

Modern-Day Pumpkins Carvings

By the late 19th century, carving pumpkins became intertwined with Halloween celebrations in the States. As Halloween transformed into a community-centered holiday, carving pumpkins also evolved. Many people enjoy cutting intricate designs into the squash with tools and stencils.

Pug dog dressed up as draculat carryin a Jack O Lantern pumpkin to get his treats on a leaf lined path.

Today, carving pumpkins is not just an American tradition but is practiced in various parts of the world. From its ancient Celtic origins and an Irish legend, the jack-o’-lantern is a lasting symbol of Halloween. Today, it captures the holiday’s magic and playfulness.

Another great reason to celebrate fall is clambakes. Check out our story, Clambake Season: Another Exciting Reason to Celebrate Fall in Ohio, and discover the history of this culinary delight in Ohio.

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