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Why Are Pumpkins Part of Halloween?

Three boys outside carving pumpkin.
Halloween Pumpkin, 1917.1

Shorter days and nippy nights herald the onset of autumn. For kids across America that means time to find the perfect pumpkin for this year’s Jack-O-Lantern. But who is Jack and what do carved pumpkins have to do with Halloween?

The Jack in Jack-O-Lantern. Our tale begins with legends about a guy named “Stingy Jack.” Jack had a reputation for manipulation and deceit. He was always looking to avoid work and make a buck at someone else’s expense. Word of his misdeeds had made it all the way to Hades and Satan himself.

Curious to see if such a scoundrel really existed, the Master of the Underworld set out to find Jack. When they met Jack was drunk and thought his end had come. He asked Satan if he could enjoy one more drink before departing. They went to a local bar.

Over beers Jack cooked up a scheme for their drinks to be free. Satan could turn into a coin to be used for payment and then later resume his normal form and go home. Satan thought it would be great fun and agreed.

At the end of the evening, Satan turned into the coin. But rather than give it to the bartender, Jack put the “coin” into his pocket next to a silver cross.

Couple chasing Jack O'Lantern in church yard at night.
Jack O'Lantern Chased in Church Yard.2

The cross kept Satan from resuming his normal form. Jack’s price for releasing Satan was that Satan leave him alone for ten years. When Satan returned ten years later, Jack trapped him again with a different ruse. This time Jack’s price was higher: Satan could never take his soul.

But be careful what you ask for. When Jack died Saint Peter obviously wouldn’t let him into heaven. And Satan wouldn’t let him into Hades, after all, that was what Jack himself had demanded. So Jack had to return to the surface. But it was dark and he complained he couldn’t find his way. Satan tossed him an ember from the flames of Hell. Jack placed it into a hollowed turnip to use as a lantern.

Ever since Jack has wandered the Earth with his turnip lamp. Nighttime travelers seeing strange lights sometimes think they have spotted Jack.

What Does Stingy Jack Have to Do with Pumpkins? Nothing, except for contributing the name Jack to Jack-O-Lantern.

Family outside farm house with Jack-O-Lantern.
Pumpkin Effigy, 1867.3

In Ireland and Scotland people put lanterns with scary faces outside their homes to keep evil spirits away, especially during the festival of Samhain, which is observed at the end of harvest season on October 31 and November 1. Spirits and faries were thought to be unusually active at that time. The lanterns were carved from gourds, turnips and beets.

When settlers came to America their stories and traditions came with them. Here they found a North American variety of squash, the pumpkin, was perfect for carving lanterns.

These lanterns, however, were typically created more to scare younger children than evil spirits, as is seen in the 1867 illustration from Harper’s Weekly. Incidentally, the Harper's article laments that this “quaint” custom was being abandoned by the “rising” generation. Seems even 150 years ago “old” folks thought young people were a rebellious lot.

Stingy Jack is still wandering. Maybe he’ll be one of the trick-or-treaters in your neighborhood this Halloween.

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  1. Photographer Unknown, Library of Congress (1917).
  2. Richard Newton, A Will o’ th’ Wisp; or Jack o’ Lantern!, 1795. British Museum.
  3. L.W. Atwater, The Pumpkin Effigy, Harper’s Weekly, November 23, 1867, p. 737, available on Google Books.

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