Have you carved your pumpkin for Halloween yet? This American tradition is a favorite--every year, pumpkins of all sizes (and sometimes colors) appear on steps and front porches and in yards across the country with scary or funny faces carved into them. But why do we carve pumpkins? Like so many of our Halloween traditions, pumpkin carving has its origins in a folk tale from Ireland.
In Celtic tradition, All Hallows Eve, or Samhain as it's also known, is a night when the veil between the worlds is thin and spirits roam the Earth. There are stories about why we dress up in Halloween costumes and go trick or treating, but the legend of the Halloween pumpkin started hundreds of years ago with a man who played a trick on the Devil.
The story of Stingy Jack
The Irish myth goes that there was a man named Stingy Jack who loved two things: drinking and playing tricks on everyone. One night, Jack met the Devil drinking at the local tavern and decided to play a trick on him. Jack offered his soul up for one last drink, bought by the Devil of course.
The Devil agreed and turned himself into a coin to pay for the drink, but instead, Jack grabbed the coin and dropped it into his pocket next to a silver cross that kept the Devil from changing back. Jack wouldn't let the Devil go until he promised not to take Jack's soul for 10 years.
The Devil, having no choice, agreed. But 10 years later, you bet he showed up to take Stingy Jack's soul. Jack, thinking quickly, promised the Devil he would go, but first, the Devil had to get him an apple out of a tree. The Devil agreed, and when he climbed up the tree, Jack put crosses all around the bottom of the tree, trapping the Devil again.
This time, Jack made the Devil promise that he wouldn't take Jack's soul at all after Jack died. So when Jack eventually passed on, he showed up at the gates of Heaven. However, he was denied entrance because he had been a terrible person, having been miserly and always playing tricks on people.
Jack then went to Hell to beg the Devil to let him in, but the Devil kept his promise and refused. Jack asked where he supposed to go, and the Devil sent him back into the cold, dark world. Jack begged for a little bit of light to help him find his way, so the Devil tossed him an ember straight from the fires of Hell. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip and has ever since roamed the Earth with only the light from his turnip lantern.
Why do we carve pumpkins?
The Irish referred to the ghost of Stingy Jack wandering the Earth with his lantern as "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern." The story spread across the British Isles, where people would carve turnips, potatoes or beets with scary faces and put them near doors or windows to frighten away Jack O'Lantern and other evil spirits.
When Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 19th century, they brought the spooky tale and the tradition with them. They found that gourds, including pumpkins, were even better for carving than turnips.
Carved pumpkins quickly became a symbol of Halloween, and now every year you can find all kinds of pumpkin carving kits and classes and designs.