Carved pumpkins are Halloween standards, but how did the jack-o'-lantern tradition get started? Learn about the history of Halloween and pumpkin carving.
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For many of us, carving pumpkins is a must-do Halloween tradition. But have you ever wondered how the holiday tradition started? The history of Halloween as we know it is based on an ancient Celtic holiday known as Samhain. Celebrated at the end of summer, Samhain was a time to honor the deceased. Celts believed that from dusk on October 31 until the dusk of November 1, souls of those who had died that year would pass on, meaning it was also when ghosts would be most present. To ward away evil spirits, people placed carved jack-o'-lanterns on porches and in windows. Their creations were made from carved turnips, beets, or potatoes with burning lumps of coal inside them to add light.

Orange pumpkin carved with a nervous face
Credit: Carson Downing

Why Are They Called Jack-o'-Lanterns?

The term "jack-o'-lantern" is believed to have originated from an Irish myth about Stingy Jack, who played tricks on everyone. When he died, Jack was denied entry into both heaven and hell and was forced to roam the world as a ghost who carried a lantern made from a carved turnip. People used to carve turnips and other vegetables on Halloween until pumpkins (which offered more space for carving) became more available. These carved pumpkin creations eventually became known as jack-o'-lanterns, because of Stingy Jack who carried around his carved lantern.

How Jack-o'-Lanterns Came to the United States

Irish immigrants brought Halloween to America during the 1800s. When these settlers arrived in the United States, they discovered pumpkins make perfect jack-o'-lanterns. Today, the pumpkin carving tradition remains synonymous with Halloween. In fact, the majority of the 1.5 billion pounds of fresh pumpkin varieties grown in the United States each year are sold for Halloween. Pumpkin carving is also popular in Ireland, England, and other parts of Europe. This year, try using a pumpkin carving kit ($11, Target) and our free pumpkin stencils to create your own Halloween jack-o'-lanterns.


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