Frightfully fun jack-o’-lantern lore

Spooky or silly?  How do you carve your jack-o’-lantern?

Whether you go for fun or fright, jack-o’-lantern carving is a family-friendly way to mark the season. Have you ever wondered how the tradition got started?

As with much folklore, it started with the Celts.  Northern Europeans carved frightening faces into beets, potatoes and turnips to fend off restless evil souls.  To illuminate them, they placed a burning ember or candle inside. A glowing cast of an early carved turnip lantern greets visitors to the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life with blazing eyes and a crooked grin.

A more macabre theory is that Jack-o’-lanterns allude to pagan customs of severed heads as war trophies.  That certainly puts the sin in sinister.  

The link between jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween started with – you guessed it – another Celtic tradition.  The Celts believed the worlds of the living and dead blurred on October 31, the night before their new year began and the start of a long, hard cold winter. So they lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts.  Through the years, secular and sacred traditions overlapped and All Hallows Eve became Halloween with its scary connotations including our buddy, Jack.

But who put the Jack in jack-o’-lantern?  In 17th century Britain, it was commonplace to call any man you didn’t know “Jack.”  A night watchman became “Jack of the lantern.” 

The Stingy Jack 18th century Irish folktale also colors the tradition.  Stingy Jack tricked the devil and was fated to spend eternity traveling between heaven and hell with only an ember of coal in a turnip lantern to light his way. 

Irish immigrants brought their traditions to America in the 19th and 20th centuries and discovered that our native pumpkins were much easier to carve than the turnips or taters from the Old Country.

Ever try to carve a turnip? 

Local pumpkin patches and garden centers are loaded with jack-o’-lantern potential.

Thrill-seeking youngsters soon realized that the glowing faces of carved pumpkins had serious scare potential and used them to frighten passerby.  Boys will be boys.

Literary references morphed from benign to sinister.  In his “Twice Told Tales,” Nathaniel Hawthorne offered up the first known literary reference to jack-o’-lanterns.

Discussing where to hide a bright gem, his character says, “Hide it under thy cloak, say’st thou?  Why, it would gleam through the holes and make thee look like a jack-o’-lantern.”   

Washington Irving’s 1820 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dialed up the fear factor when his headless horseman tossed a glowing jack-o’-lantern at Ichabod Crane who disappeared forever.

Cue the spooky scream. 

jack o lanterns

While jack-o’-lanterns are part of the scene that is Halloween, their meaning has mellowed.  Many consider them a symbol of community, a big orange welcome mat for trick-or-treaters.

Last year, I followed the laughter down my street to find a neighbor and her kids gleefully gutting three huge pumpkins for carving. Tossing a gooey handful of seeds, she grinned and said, “It just isn’t Halloween without jack-o’-lanterns!”  

Whether you find jack-o’-lanterns fun or frightful, I suggest you grab a plump pumpkin by its stem and have your way with it to honor the long-standing tradition.

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

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