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

Readers’ 2020 Gardening Highlights Vol. 2

At the end of 2020, we asked readers to share any notable stories, projects, or accomplishments from their past year in gardening activities. We received some great submissions. We will feature a portion of the submissions in this post and more in the future.

View more 2020 Highlights

Pollinators love Mexican sunflower

Anne Henochowicz in Montgomery County wanted to share her success with this pollinator attracting plant.

Pumped about pumpkins

Kelly Domesle and daughter Helena had great success with pumpkins down in Washington D.C.

“During the shutdown this Spring, we spent an afternoon exploring the physics of “Pumpkin smashing” from our deck. My daughter, Helena, salvaged a few pumpkin seeds and planted them in our front yard. I was skeptical, but she tended to the plants all summer and had an amazing harvest this Fall! People stopped and talked to us about our pumpkin patch all year and we loved watching the bees buzzing in and out of the flowers. We gave the pumpkins away to neighbors and cooked some, too.”

  • Pumpkin harvest
  • Big pumpkin patch
  • Pumpkin vine

Brittany’s bountiful Baltimore garden

Brittany Croteau, a Master Gardener in Baltimore City shared her amazing turf reduction/garden expansion, native flowers, and fruit and vegetable haul this year:

“Over 2020 I anticipated having a really sad garden year… I was newly pregnant, and had just accepted a promotion which had me traveling to Cecil County daily, which left me with little time to think about my garden. Then COVID hit and I found myself at home 24/7, with a LOT of free time on my hands. My husband and I decided to rededicate that time to our garden, removing more turf, planting more natives, and meeting (socially distanced) with neighbors to swap produce and flowers. This year was the most fruitful garden we had, both with native plants, native birds, and veggie production. I was so grateful to spend time outside and create a space I was happy to welcome my daughter into in August 2020. A year I thought my garden was going to be neglected ended up being our best garden year yet. “