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why we carve pumpkins

Why We Carve Pumpkins, The Origins of the Jack-O-Lantern

Ever wonder why we carve pumpkins? Every year children and families get giddy over carving out pumpkins for Halloween and Samhain, but does anyone know the jack-o-lantern origins?


What is the legend behind why we carve pumpkins? And why has it been carried out for so many years? The Fairytale Traveler’s contributing author, Ed Mooney has the answer in a full Irish storytelling manner. This is one you will want to share with the kids.


So, turn down the lights, light your candles, and share the jack-o-lantern origins with the family tonight! Happy Halloween! 

why we carve pumpkins
pumpkin graveyard Photo by Christa Thompson

Jack-o-lantern Origins, Why We Carve Pumpkins

The Tale of the Jack-O-Lantern and the Legend of Stringy Jack

The first thing you must understand about jack-o-lantern origins and why we carve pumpkins is that Irish emigrants brought their many traditions to the shores of the United States in the early 1800s. This tale is no different.
The tale you are about to read of the jack-o-lantern origins comes from a very old Irish story concerning a man known as ‘Stringy Jack’.
Now, as with many old tales, there are many variations told depending on who is telling the story. Here I will tell it to the best of my ability, the tale of the lack-o-lantern as I remember it being told to me as a child, sitting by the fire on a cold dark night.
Telling stories around the fire never gets old...
Telling stories around the fire never gets old…

Jack was a blacksmith by trade and known locally as a notorious miser and drunk. Jack was forever tormenting people with his miserable antics which included playing tricks on everyone; family, friends, his mother, and even the Devil himself.


Then one night, Jack had the great misfortune to run into the Devil in the local pub.


Now Jack was not a man to be easily daunted, and so he brazenly invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence that Jack could use to buy their drinks in exchange for Jack’s soul.


Once the Devil did so, Jack cunningly decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross which, prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.


Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack and not try to claim his soul for ten years. Jack continued on his miserly drunken ways for a long time.


It wasn’t until one dark and cold night when the ten years had passed, Jack ran into the Devil who had been waiting for him as he walked down a country road. The Devil was anxious to claim the soul that he had so cunningly been conned from, but the crafty old drunk stalled.


Jack thought quickly and said to the devil. “I’ll go, but before I go, will you get me an apple from that tree?” The Devil thought he had nothing to lose, and so he climbed the tree as Jack pointed to a large apple at the top.


Perturbed, the Devil climbed high into the tree after the apple Jack selected. When he was high enough up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come back down.


Jack, being very proud of himself for outsmarting the Devil, again made him promise to never again ask him for his soul. Seeing that he had no other choice the Devil reluctantly agreed to Jack’s terms.


Shortly after this encounter, Jack passed away. His spirit ascended up to the gates of heaven, but he was stopped there by St. Peter who refused him entry as he had led such a miserable life on earth he was not entitled to enter the kingdom of heaven.


Next, Jack’s spirit descended to the gates of hell where he was again blocked from entering. The Devil who was still upset at being outsmarted by Jack kept his promise by refusing to take Jack’s soul.


Jack now began to panic, scared that he now had nowhere to go but to wander about forever in the darkness between heaven and hell. He asked the Devil how he could leave as he had no light to guide him.


The Devil mockingly tossed Jack an ember from the flames of Hell to help him light his way. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out Turnip, which he always carried around with him.

Traditional Jack-O-Lanterns
Traditional jack-o-lanterns

From that day onward, Jack roamed the earth without a resting place. Jack has been left roaming the Earth ever since. In Ireland, we refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack Lantern.”


In the Irish tradition, people believed that spirits and ghosts could enter their world on Halloween. These spirits and ghosts would be attracted to the comforts of their earthly lives.,


So, with people not wanting to be visited by these ghosts, they would set food and treats out to appease the roaming spirits and began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Jack and other wandering evil spirits.


And there you have it. This is why we carve pumpkins today. If you can even believe the origins of the jack-o-lantern come all the way from Ireland and from so very long ago, but they do!


So, next time you’re gathered around the table and ready to slice, you can tell the story of Old Stringy Jack and share with your friends and family why we carve pumpkins!

Christa Thompson

Christa Thompson is the Founder and Chief Editor of The Fairytale Traveler. She started traveling the world in 2003 when she attended a summer abroad study at the University of Cambridge in England. Since then, her wanderlust has been fierce. Her three passions in life are her son, traveling, and being creative. The Fairytale Traveler brand gives Christa the opportunity to do all of these things and to live intentionally every day. "It's never too late to believe in what you love and to pursue your dreams." -Christa Thompson

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