Why do we carve pumpkins around Halloween?

Annual tradition dates back centuries to Irish folktale

(Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay)

Every Halloween season, carved pumpkins can be found lighting up porches and doorways nearly everywhere you turn.

What’s a fun, annual tradition for many actually dates back hundreds of years, and starts with a story in Ireland. According to an old Irish folktale, the reason behind carving jack-o’-lanterns can be attributed to a man named Stingy Jack, who teased and tricked the devil, and now roams the earth as a spooky spirit.

The story says Stingy Jack invited the devil for a drink, but didn’t have money to pay for it. So, instead, Stingy Jack convinced the devil to turn into a coin that he could use to buy their drinks. The devil did just that.

Instead of paying for the drinks, though, Stingy Jack kept the coin in his pocket, where he also had silver cross. The devil was unable to change back to his original form due to the cross, and was at the mercy of Stingy Jack. The man agreed to release the devil, so long as the devil left him alone for one year and wouldn’t claim Stingy Jack’s soul if he were to die. The devil complied.

The next year, visited by the devil again, Stingy Jack tricked him into climbing a tree to get some fruit, according to the tale. Stingy Jack held the devil hostage again, carving a cross into the tree while the devil was up high so that he could not come down. Jack agreed to let the devil down, so long as he promised not to bother Jack for another 10 years.

A short time later, Stingy Jack is said to have died. Because of his behavior on Earth, legend has it that God wouldn’t allow Jack to enter heaven -- but he wasn’t allowed to enter hell, either, as the devil kept his initial promise.

Stingy Jack was instead sent “off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way,” according to History.com. Stingy Jack then carved out a turnip, placed the burning coal inside, and has been roaming the earth with it since.

In Ireland, people referred to Stingy Jack’s ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” which was eventually shortened to “Jack O’Lantern.” People in Ireland and in Scotland started making their own versions of Stingy Jack’s lantern, carving faces into turnips or potatoes. Those carved vegetables were placed in windows and by doorways to scare Stingy Jack away ... or any other “wandering evil spirits.”

The tale carried over to England, where people carved scary faces in large beets to keep the spirits away.

When people immigrated to the U.S., they brought the folktale along with them, including the tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns. Eventually, pumpkins -- which are native to North America -- became the jack-o’-lantern carving medium of choice.

Related: Don’t trash them: How to properly dispose of your pumpkins after Halloween

Out of curiosity, do you carve pumpkins each year around Halloween? Take the quick poll below and let us know.


About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.