SUBSCRIBE NOW

Delving into the history of pumpkins and their use at Halloween

Lyn Fenwick
St. John News
Bright orange pumpkins help create a festive display for fall and the Halloween holiday in a Pratt front yard.

We are all familiar with Jack-o'-Lanterns at Halloween,  but do you know the history of the tradition using pumpkins at Halloween?  Actually, there is a great deal of history before pumpkins were used for Jack-o'-Lanterns. 

Over 700 years ago it is known that gourds were used to carve lanterns, but the later custom of carving Jack-o'-Lanterns at Halloween is believed to have begun in Ireland.  In the Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, Halloween, and the festival of Samhain which included the belief that supernatural beings and the souls of the dead roamed the Earth at that time of year, gave rise to the practice of carving turnips rather than pumpkins to create lanterns.  Various explanations for these  Irish lanterns have been given, including to repel evil spirits, to frighten other reveiliers, or to represent spirits or supernatural beings.

An Irish legend describes trickery between an Irishman named Jack and the devil, involving a promise that the devil could never take his soul.  However, when Jack died, the devil had his own trick--for while he could not take Jack's soul to hell, he could block Jack's access to heaven.  Forever, Jack would wander through eternity, lighting his way with the glowing coal from the fires of hell that the devil threw at him.  That coal, which like the devil's curse on Jack, would forever burn inside the turnip Jack carved to use as a lantern.  Variations of the legend can also be found in the folklore of England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Wales. 

Pumpkins were among the produce that Native Americans introduced to Europeans when they arrived in America.  Although in the early years pumpkins were associated with harvest celebrations rather than Halloween, eventually  immigrants, who had adopted the practice of carving Jack-o'-Lanterns in their old countries,  began using pumpkins, rather than turnips, to create their lanterns.  As might be expected, the European legend began finding its way into America's literature.  Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, published in 1820, is one example, as is John Greenleaf Whittier's poem, The Pumpkin, published in 1850.  

Among my favorite uses of the Jack-o'-Lantern is as a main character in the Oz series of books.  Jack appeared first in The Marvelous Land of Oz, published in 1904 by L. Frank Baum as the second book in the series.  Jack's head was a carved Jack-o'-Lantern, and his body was made from tree limbs jointed with wooden pegs.  He wore purple trousers, a red shirt, and a pink vest with white polka dots.  Baum continued to use him in later books in the series, but Jack did not get his name in the title until 1929, until Ruth Plumly Thompson was authoring the Oz series after Baum's death.  As the hero of the 23rd book in the series, Jack  upgraded his clothing, as seen in the cover shown at left.  Jno R. Neill became the illustrator of the Oz series with Baum's second Oz book and continued as illustrator when Plumly assumed authorship, so his are the images we identify as Jack Pumpkinhead.

Among the illustrated children's books that I collect, there are many examples of Jack-o'-Lanterns depicted in the Halloween books, and perhaps many of you reading this week's blog have a Jack-o'-Lantern sitting on your front step.