The most recognizable symbol of Halloween is a pumpkin that has been carved into a jack-o-lantern. Yet in order to understand the origins of how pumpkin carving began, and what it really means, it is important to first take a look at the holiday itself.
While Halloween seems like a simple childrens holiday it actually has a long and varied history. If you’ve ever wondered why we carve pumpkins in to jack-o-lanterns, the following is a look at the history of Halloween.
For most people Halloween is a night for dressing up, telling ghost stories, having spooky parties, trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving. What many people do not know is that Halloween is actually based on an ancient Celtic holiday known as Samhain (pronounced “sow wan”), which means “summer’s end”.
This holiday was held at the end of the Celtic year, starting at sundown on October 31st and going through to sundown November 1st. It was considered a night to honor loved ones that had passed on since it was believed that the veil between their realm and ours is at it’s thinnest on that night.
This holiday was celebrated for centuries by the Celts of old, Witches and many other nature based religions, and for them was the most magical night of the year. Halloween is also referred to as the Last Harvest and the Witches New Year. Though not generally considered a religiously significant holiday now, Halloween is still a magical night for children!
On this magical night, glowing jack-o-lanterns that were usually carved from turnips or gourds were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased friends, but also to act as protection against malevolent spirits. In some countries a carved jack o’ lantern was carried about by Halloween revelers in an attempt to scare off evil spirits as well. Burning lumps of coal were used inside as a source of light, but were later replaced by candles.
When European settlers, (particularly the Irish), arrived in America they found the native pumpkin to be much larger and therefore easier to carve. It seemed the perfect choice for jack-o-lanterns. An Irish legend recounts that the Jack OLantern was named after a reprobate named Jack who tricked the Devil several times when he was alive.
After he died Heaven refused him entry so he went down to Hell to appeal to the Devil. The story says that the Devil took pity on Jack and gave him a piece of burning coal to light his way as he stayed in limbo between Heaven and Hell. So the aptly named pumpkin with a candle or burning coal inside came to be known as Jack O Lantern.
It is interesting to note that Halloween did not really catch on big in this country until the late 1800’s and yet has been celebrated in so many ways ever since! Halloween is celebrated far and wide today despite it’s humble beginning.
Pumpkins are indigenous to the western hemisphere and were completely unknown in Europe before the time of Columbus. Historical records show that in 1584, the French explorer Jacques Cartier reported from the St. Lawrence region that he had found a type of melon that is now known as pumpkins.
It has also been shown that pumpkins have been grown in America for over 5,000 years and were called”isquotersquash” by Native Americans.
Horticulturists have classified the pumpkin as a fruit not as a vegetable. Pumpkins, like gourds, and other varieties of squash are all members of the Cucurbitaceous family, which also includes cucumbers, gherkins, and melons.