KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — For some, carving pumpkins is a yearly tradition, but the history behind these jack-o’-lanterns may go back farther than the traditional tale of Halloween.
The story of Hallows-eve and All Saints’ Day may be more commonly known when thinking about the origin of Halloween, but before there was All Saints’ Day, a Celtic holiday was celebrated.
Time shared more about the history of Samhain, a Celtic festival celebrating the end of summer and the Celtic new year. While a specific date for the holiday beginning was not given, the suggestion from Time’s article is that it was going on before Rome conquered most of the Celtic lands in 43 A.D., and much of the Celtic traditions were reframed with the Christian narrative. According to Time, Pope Boniface did not declare the celebration of All Saints’ day until the year 603.
Samhain, translated as summer’s end according to Smithsonian Magazine, was the festival of fire and went from sundown on October 31 through November 1. Because of the transition between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, the ancient Celts thought that the veil between death and life was at its narrowest, meaning that spirits were able to roam freely between the realms according to Smithsonian.
Even the name jack-o’-lanterns ties back to the Samhain festival, According to Britannica, the lanterns were carved to ward off the spirit of Stingy Jack, who is the center of an 18th-century Irish myth. This myth says that while he was alive, Stingy Jack tricked the Devil for his own gain. It is said that when he died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t let him into hell either, so he was cursed to roam the earth for eternity. The jack-o’-lanterns were said to keep Jack’s wandering spirit away.
National Geographic suggests another possible source of the term. They link back to 17th-century British slang, when it was common to refer to a man whose name was not known “Jack.” By this reasoning, they suggest that night watchmen might be known as “Jack-of-the-Lantern”, shortened to jack-o’-lantern.
Originally, jack-o’-lanterns were not carved into Pumpkins. They were carved into several root vegetables, most commonly turnips. The reasoning for root vegetables seems somewhat ingenious and inventive. National Geographic quotes Nathan Mannion, senior curator for EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, in Dublin, saying:
“Metal lanterns were quite expensive, so people would hollow out root vegetables,” he says. “Over time people started to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without extinguishing the ember.”
The National Museum of Ireland still has a plaster cast of a turnip jack-o’-lantern with a haunting face.
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It seems that the pumpkins became more commonly associated with jack-o’-lanterns when the tale came to the new world, in early American literature, according to National Geographic. They explain that writer Nathan Hawthorne mentioned a jack-o’-lantern in his 1835 story “The Great Carbuncle, and again in 1852 with “Feathertop”, which includes a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin head. One notable tale that may have helped this image according to National Geographic is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, which includes the Headless Horseman throwing an uncarved pumpkin at Ichabod Crane, but images of the villain show him holding a jack-o’-lantern.