Why Do People Carve Pumpkins for Halloween?

By: Emilie Sennebogen  | 
Pumpkin carving
What is now a fun Halloween tradition started out as a way to ward off a fiendish character. Yulkapopkova/Getty Images

Traditions have always played a big part in what defines any holiday. Christmas brings unique traditions like putting up a tree and singing carols for strangers. Thanksgiving typically involves football and more food than should be consumed in one sitting. Independence Day is all about fireworks and backyard cookouts.

But Halloween may be richer in tradition than any other holiday. Children dress up in costumes and go house to house, asking for candy handouts with the familiar cry of "trick or treat."


There's another Halloween tradition from Ireland that you can spot on porches all over the United States on Oct. 31: the jack-o'-lantern.

A Devilish 'Dine and Dash'

Like most folklore, the history of the jack-o'-lantern varies a little bit depending on who's telling the story. But all stories involve a clever drunkard that pulls one over on the devil.

Legend has it, in 18th-century Ireland, a foul-mouthed drunk and disreputable miser named Stingy Jack asked the devil to go have a drink with him. The devil obliged and when the bill came, there was that awkward moment that we're all so familiar with.


Jack expected the devil to take care of things, and the devil thought Jack should pony up. Seeing as how Jack had no money anyway, he convinced the devil to turn himself into a six pence coin to pay the bill. The devil fell for it; Jack skipped on the bill and kept the devil at bay by sliding the coin into his pocket to lay at rest beside a silver cross.

The devil was stuck in Jack's pocket, trapped by the cross, but Jack decided to be a good egg and let him out, providing that the devil wouldn't come after Jack for a period of one to 10 years, depending on who you ask.

The devil had no choice but to agree and once the coin was removed, he turned himself back into the devil and went on his not-so-merry way.


Fool Me Twice

At the end of the agreed-upon timeframe, the devil found Jack for a little payback. Somehow, Jack convinced him to climb a tree in search of an apple for Jack before they set off for hell. The horned one once again obliged, only to see Jack carve a cross into the tree trunk, leaving the beast stranded again.

Jack must have felt bad, because he agreed to let the devil down if he promised to never claim his soul for hell. The devil was caught between a rock and hard place once again, so he agreed.


When Jack died, St. Peter rejected him at the pearly gates because of his suspect credentials. The devil wouldn't and couldn't let Jack in to hell, per their agreement at the tree.

In the end, the devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal to light his way through purgatory. Jack carried the coal inside a hollowed-out turnip.


The Tradition of Carved Produce

Irish families told the tale and began to put carved out turnips in their windows to prevent Stingy Jack and other ghouls from entering the home. Some had scary faces carved into them to frighten away any comers.

Once the tradition hit the United States, Irish immigrants soon realized that the pumpkin, native to the states, was an ideal fruit for carving. That's why you see jack-o'-lanterns on porches around Halloween.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Harris, Tom. "Jack-o'Lanterns." howstuffworks.com, 2009. https://people.howstuffworks.com/halloween5.htm
  • "History of the Jack-o' Lantern." history.com, 2009. http://www.history.com/content/halloween/the-jack-o-lantern
  • "Why do we Carve Pumpkins at Halloween?" livescience.com, 2009. http://www.livescience.com/mysteries/061030_pumpkin_carving.html