jackOne of the most iconic images of Halloween is an image of a glowing Jack O’Lantern with a scary face lighting up the darkness. But pumpkins were not always part of the holiday celebrations. Carving pumpkins into shapes and putting candles inside them is an American twist on an ancient tradition. The ancient Celts used to carve turnips into scary faces and place lit candles in them as part of their celebration of Samhain. Turnips were used because they were readily available, although beets were sometimes used as well.

Legend has it that Jack O’Lanterns got their name from an Irish blacksmith who was also a drunk. He was called “Stingy Jack” and he would do anything to avoid paying for his drinks. One night at a tavern he met the devil. He convinced the devil to turn himself into money to pay for Jack’s drink. The devil agreed as long as Jack agreed to give the devil his soul when he died.

When the devil turned himself into money Jack pocketed the money instead of paying for his drink. Jack also had a silver cross in his pocket so when he put the money into his pocket the devil could not change back into his original form. After awhile Jack freed the devil and tricked him into going up into a tree. When the devil was in the tree Jack carved crosses in the trunk of the tree so the devil couldn’t come down. He refused to let the devil come down until the devil agreed to let Jack keep his soul. When Jack died God wouldn’t allow him into heaven because he was not a good person, but the devil refused to let him into hell because he had been tricked by Jack so many times before.

Frustrated Jack asked where he was supposed to go and the devil told him to go back to Earth. He gave Jack a lump of hot fiery coal to light his way, which Jack put into a carved out turnip to use as a lantern. Legend says that he roams the earth on Halloween night with his turnip lantern looking for a place to rest.  Irish people and later Scottish people started putting turnips carved into scary faces lit with candles into their windows on All Hallows Eve to confuse evil spirits like Jack and make sure the spirits didn’t enter their homes.

Pumpkins became popular for making Jack O’Lanterns in the US because pumpkins were easier to get than turnips. Pumpkins also were popular because the larger size made carving easier. Today candles are falling out of favor as lights because of safety concerns. Most people now use LED lights or LED candles in their Jack O’Lanterns. Picking out the perfect pumpkins for Jack O’Lanterns at the pumpkin patch is an annual tradition in many families. Artists and craftspeople spend all year sharpening their carving skills so they can create elaborate carvings in their Jack O’ Lanterns.