The History of the American Jack-O-Lanterns (2023)

ByBlane Bacharel

Posted on October 27, 2020

(Video) The Illuminating History of the Jack-o-Lantern

10 minute read

There is no more classic image of Halloween than a glowing lantern placed in a window or porch, creating a gleefully ghoulish atmosphere. For decades, pumpkin carving has been a beloved fall tradition in America, celebrated with parties, festivals, and televised competitions.

The backstory of jack-o'-lanterns, including how they began to feature in Halloween decor and why they're carved in the first place, is a story worth telling. While the legendary Headless Horseman and his throwing pumpkin have scared Americans for generations, the origins of pumpkins actually go back centuries, to Old World traditions in countries likeIreland,England, miScotland.

Along the way, pagan rituals, bizarre folktales, and natural phenomena intertwine to create a fascinating story that's part fact, part fiction, and all fun.

The first Celtic rituals

The concept of using a round fruit or vegetable to represent a human face dates back thousands of years in some Northern European Celtic cultures. "It could even have pre-Christian origins that evolved from the custom of head worship, or potentially even represent war trophies taken from your enemies," says Nathan Mannion, senior curator ofEPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin. "He is quite macabre, but may have symbolized the severed heads of his enemies."

The idea was deepened during the Celtic festival ofNovember, which was originally celebrated on November 1 and has inspired many modern Halloween traditions. On the eve of Samhain, October 31, it was believed that the spirits of the dead mingled with the living. To scare away restless souls, people would dress up in costumes and carve creepy faces into root vegetables like beets, potatoes, and turnips, which are usually plentiful after the recent harvest.

(Video) The History of Jack o' Lanterns

(Related: These Paper Crafts Bring the Party to Day of the Dead.)

It also evolved a practical purpose, Mannion says. “Metal lanterns were very expensive, so people dug up roots,” he says. "Over time, people began to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without putting out the embers."

visitors fromNational Museum of Ireland - Country Life, in County Mayo, you can see firsthand how scary these turnips can look. A plaster cast of a carved turnip lantern common in the early 20th century, called a "ghost turnip" and complete with sharp teeth and sinister eye slits, haunts the museum's permanent exhibits.

Human weaknesses and nature's tricks

The origins of pumpkins are not limited to production; the term also refers to people. According to Merriam-Webster, in 17th century Britain it was common to call a man whose name you did not know "Jack". A night watchman, for example, became known as a "Jack-of-the-Lantern," or jack-o'-lantern.

Then there's the 18th century Irish folk tale of Stingy Jack, a nasty chap who used to be a blacksmith with a taste for tricks and booze. Dozens of versions abound, but one recurring story is that Stingy Jack tricked the devil twice. When Jack died, he found himself banned from heaven and hell. But the devil took pity on Jack and gave him a coal ember to light his turnip lantern as he wandered between the two places for eternity, again inspiring the nickname Jack-of-the-Lantern or jack-o'. -lantern.

“It was also used as a cautionary tale, a morality tale, that Jack was a soul caught between two worlds, and if you behaved like him, you could end up that way too,” says Mannion.

The story also helped explainshred,a natural phenomenon occurring in marshes and bogs, such as those in the Irish countryside, which produce flickering lights like flue gases from decaying organic matter. Also known as fool's fire, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisp, and eventually jack-o'-lantern, it often resembled "a floating flame drifting away from travelers," Mannion says. “If you tried to follow the light, you could fall into a sinkhole or swamp, or drown. People thought it was Jack of the Lantern, a lost soul or a ghost."

(Video) The Messed Up Origins™ of Jack-o'-Lanterns | Folklore Explained - Jon Solo

As Ireland began the process of national electrification in the 1930s, the Stingy Jack story began to fade. “By the time the lights went on, a lot of the stories lost their potency and people's imaginations weren't quite as wild,” Mannion says.

Coming to America

But by this time, the jack-o'-lantern tradition had already taken root in the New World, appearing in early American literature and media. The writer Nathaniel Hawthorne referenced one of them in his 1835 short story "The Great Carbuncle" and again in 1852 with "Feathertop", about a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin head. According to Cindy Ott, author ofPumpkin: The Curious Story of an American Icon,the first picture of a jack-o'-lantern pumpkin is probablyone that appearedin an 1867 edition ofHarper's Weekly.

Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," first published in 1820 and republished in 1858, propelled the pumpkin into American culture like never before. At the climax of the story, the Headless Horseman throws an uncarved pumpkin at Ichabod Crane, whom he never sees again. But most images of the terrifying villain show him holding a jack-o'-lantern, which helped make the story a perennial Halloween favorite.

“The legend is considered a Halloween story, probably because it was one of the first internationally known horror stories,” says Sara Mascia, executive director ofThe Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown Historical Society. "The pumpkin was associated with that element of fear, and that's why the pumpkin appears, because it's with the galloping Hessian [soldier], the headless horseman, whatever you want to call him."

(Related: Witch-hunting tourism is lucrative. It also obscures a tragic history..)

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the influx of Irish immigrants, who brought their traditions and folktales, also helped shape Jack-o'-lantern history in America. They found that pumpkins, which are not native to Ireland but are common in North America, were much more suitable for carving than turnips or potatoes.

As more Americans began to celebrate Halloween, the jack-o'-lantern emerged as their most iconic image. A review onatlanta constitutiondescribed the 1892 "All Halloween" party inatlantaMayor William Hemphill in glowing terms: "Never in the annals of Atlanta society was there more unique and brilliant entertainment", with decor featuring "all manner of smiling jack-o'-lanterns made of pumpkins, cunningly carved with faces."

(Video) The Origin Of Jack O'Lantern

Carved pumpkins began to serve much more than mere decoration. Despite their often scary appearance, pumpkins now symbolize a welcoming sense of community. “On Halloween, you don't go to someone's house unless they have a pumpkin,” says Ott. “It is about cementing a community, projecting good values, neighborhood. Pumpkin and Jack-o'-lantern also take on these meanings.

Over the past decade, the popularity of the jack-o'-lantern has not diminished. According to the United States Department of Agriculture,more than 1 billion tonsof the pumpkins were harvested in 2018. Many end up as pumpkins on porches, though some appear on TV shows like HGTVpumpkin warsour food networkscandalous pumpkins.

Pumpkins during a pandemic

This year thecoronavirusis putting a damper on Halloween celebrations, but some pumpkin patches and festivals are proceeding with caution. Usually Sleepy Hollow,NY, and the nearby town of Tarrytown hosts dozens of events honoring the legend of the same name. In 2020, which marks the bicentennial of the story's original publication, the schedule is drastically reduced. more orGrande Jack O'Lantern Blaze, illuminated by more than 7,000 hand-carved pumpkins, is open with reduced capacity, advance purchase of tickets, and social distancing.

Em Gretna,Nebraska,Vala's Pumpkin Patchit offers 55 acres of pumpkins, various attractions and, this year, an online "Live Crowd Tracker" to let guests know when you're reaching capacity. In itDallasThe popular Arboretum and Botanical Gardenautumn in the arboretumevent, masks and advance registration required to explore the artistic scenes with more than 90,000 pumpkins and gourds.

(Related: Coronavirus Is Forcing America's 'Halloween Towns' To Make Spooky Decisions.)

Meanwhile, the organizers of theKeene Pumpkin Festivaltheynew hampshire, which set a Guinness World Record for the most pumpkins, switched to a "self-managed" format, encouraging residents to place their carved creations in front of their homes and businesses. In Atlanta, a small business owner is bringing the pumpkin patch to the people, with a “pumpkin truck” delivery service that transports seasonal food staples to customers' neighborhoods.

To avoid getting or spreading the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionrecommendsthat revelers in areas where COVID-19 is active refrain from traveling to rural festivals.

(Video) The History Of Jack-O-Lanterns

Fortunately, you can still get into the Halloween spirit the traditional way: by carving a pumpkin at home, just as humans have done for centuries, bringing a little light to a dark fall night.

Blane Bacharelis a Florida-born, Berlin-based writer who covers travel and outdoor adventures for theWashington Post, New York Times,miFor,among others. She is also a super fan of Halloween. follow herInstagram.


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