Why Do We Carve Pumpkins Every Halloween?

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Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?

Carving a Jack O’Lantern can be one of the most anticipated activities of the Halloween season.  Picking the perfect pumpkin, deciding on a design, and creating its face is a wonderful way to spend time together. But have you ever wondered exactly why we carve pumpkins every year? Well friends, if you have or you haven’t, gather round and listen as I tell you a haunting tale from many years ago…

The Strange, Almost True Tale of Jack o’ the Lantern

Adapted from a Traditional Irish Folktale by Kate Taylor

Ages upon ages ago, there lived a man in Ireland who loved money so much, everyone called him Stingy Jack.

With a name like that it was no wonder Jack found himself in a predicament at a tavern one night. He’d stopped in for a hot meal and a strong drink, something to break the chill settling in his bones from hours of walking in the wind and rain.  But now that a pleasant warmth was spreading from his belly to his fingertips and toes, Jack looked around the room, knowing he had only a few coins and a small silver cross in his pocket worried he’d have to give up one or all to pay the debt.

His eyes settled on a respectably dressed gentleman sitting alone, reading a foreign newspaper. “There’s a man with coins in his pocket,” he thought, and just as quickly decided to unburden the gentleman of any gold or silver the traveler carried.  

Jack joined the gentleman and soon the two were laughing like old friends. The tale would’ve ended with Jack leaving the tavern, coins weighing heavily in his pockets, had Jack not noticed his companions feet.  Or rather, his companion’s lack of feet. Because where Jack had expected to see expensive boots, there were two impossibly large cloven hooves instead.

The gentleman smiled. 

“Are you the Devil?,” Jack asked and the gentleman grinned even wider. Had Jack been sensible, he’d have run screaming for the door, but Jack, being greedy, didn’t think about the danger he was in. 

“I don’t believe it,” said Jack. “If you’re the Devil himself, turn into a coin so I can pay for our dinners.”

The gentleman raised an eyebrow, chuckled a bit, and did just that. Every bit as quickly, Jack slid the coin into his pocket, placing it right next to the small silver cross, and slipped out of the tavern altogether. 

Walking hurriedly down a deeply pitted track, he began to feel the Devil coin move in his pocket. The Devil tried again and again to transform back to himself, but the silver crucifix prevented it. When at last the Devil, who’d indeed shown himself to be no gentleman, had stopped shouting and threatening Jack, Jack proposed a solution. He’d let the Devil change from being a coin as long as the Devil promised to make him rich and never take his soul. The Devil agreed and the two parted ways for a good many years. 

While life can be long, it is not infinite, and eventually Jack died. He believed he’d go straight to Heaven, having bested the Devil himself when he was a young man, but instead he was turned away. A clever deal with the Devil was still a deal, and Jack couldn’t be allowed inside.

At a loss for what to do, Jack went to the Devil instead. After a journey that might have taken weeks or even decades, Jack stumbled into the Devil’s dining room as the creature began to eat.

“What are you doing here?,” asked the Devil. “Don’t you remember? I swore never to claim your soul, and I intend to keep my promise.”

“But what will I do?,” pleaded Jack, who didn’t particularly like being dead.

“You will wander,” replied the Devil. “The Lord can not take you and I will not have you, but you’re welcome to try a few more times to be sure.”

The Devil picked up a burning coal from the fire and offered it to Jack. Knowing it would burn his hands to bits, Jack quickly grabbed a turnip from the table and hollowed it out in 10 seconds flat. The Devil smiled and dropped the glowing sphere into the makeshift lamp. He turned and went back to his feast without giving Jack another glance, satisfied to have once again gotten his due.

Turnips, Potatoes, Beets, and Pumpkins

Since then, Stingy Jack’s been called a good many names, but most often he’s called Jack o’ Lantern. Forced to wander the world, Jack carved out and hollowed a turnip to hold the only light he’d have to guide his way. When people in Ireland and Scotland celebrated Samhain, or the Celtic New Year, they would put on costumes and carve their own turnips, potatoes, and beets to confuse spirits like Jack and keep them away from their homes. When the Irish and Scottish got to the United States, they found pumpkins were the perfect size and shape to carve their Jack o’ the Lanterns from every Halloween. 

So, this year, why not have a Gambino’s Jack o’ Lantern cake, some warm cider and tell a few spooky tales by the glow of your own carved pumpkins?