Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why We Carve Pumpkins at Halloween

Why Do We Carve Pumpkins into Jack O'Lanterns on Halloween?

The phrase "jack o'lantern" is British and dates back to the 17th century, when it meant "man with a lantern" -- a night watchman. It was also a nickname for the natural phenomenon known as ignis fatuus (fool's fire) or "will o' the wisp," the mysterious, flickering lights sometimes seen over wetlands and associated in folklore with fairies and ghosts.

Over time "jack o'lantern" became a popular term for a homemade object also known as a "turnip lantern," defined by Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire as "a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it." In some parts of Great Britain carrying jack o'lanterns was known as a form of pranksterism. As Darlington writes, "It is a common device of mischievous lads for frightening belated wayfarers on the road." In other locales (or perhaps in earlier times) people carved jack o'lanterns on the eves of All Saints and All Souls Days to represent souls of the dead trapped in Purgatory.

According to legend, the jack o'lantern was named after a reprobate Irishman called Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil into promising he wouldn't go to hell for his sins. When Jack died he learned he was barred from heaven, so he went down to the gates of hell after all to beg for a final resting place. Wouldn't you know it, the Devil kept his promise, dooming Jack to wander the earth for all eternity with only an ember of hellfire of to light his way. Thenceforth he was known as Jack O'Lantern.

It wasn't until Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack o'lanterns to North America that pumpkins began to be used for that purpose, and not until the late 19th century that pumpkin carving became a Halloween fixture.

We carve pumpkins because it's fun and it reminds me of my childhood with my brothers and sisters.