Halloween conjures up certain images in our mind - witches, bats, candy, and of course, pumpkins or Jack-o-Lanterns. Like all traditions, there is usually an interesting story, and those pumpkins are no exception. Who would have thought that by carving a goofy face on a giant vegetable, we would be protecting ourselves from deceitful, wandering spirits?
The history of the Halloween pumpkins, and specifically Jack-o-Lanterns, dates back to a very old Irish myth. The myth tells the story of one Stingy Jack who invites the Devil to drink. Stingy Jack is, well, stingy, so he tricks the devil into becoming a coin to pay for the drinks. The Devil complies, but instead of paying for the drinks, Stingy Jack puts the Devil coin in his pocket next to a cross. The cross keeps the devil from changing back to his true form, and Jack does not release him until the Devil promises to leave Stingy Jack alone for the next year and to not take his soul if he should die.
The following year, the Devil visits Stingy Jack again, and again is tricked. Stingy Jack has the Devil climb a tree to get a piece of fruit, but while the Devil is up in the tree, Jack carves a cross on the tree truck. The Devil can not get back down past the cross, and Stingy Jack does not free him until the Devil promises to leave him alone for ten more years.
Well, as luck would have it, Stingy Jack dies. Heaven was not particularly interested in having such an unsavory figure, so the angels turn Jack away. The Devil could not take Jack's soul, and didn't really want it anyway, so he also turns Stingy Jack away. Jack is left but nothing but a lit coal to light his way as he wanders the darkness between Heaven and Hell forever. He carves a turnip to hold his little piece of light and becomes a restless spirit traveling the countryside.
The peasants who told the tale of Stingy Jack and his lit turnip carved scary faces into their own turnips and other gourds. They lit them from within, and placed the lanterns on the doorstep or windowsill to frighten Jack away. Overtime, Stingy Jack became known as Jack of the Lantern, and even later, Jack O'Lantern.
All over what is now the United Kingdom, families were carving miniature Jack-o-Lanterns out of beets, potatoes, and turnips.
When those families began to immigrate to America, they brought the tradition with them. The pumpkin, a vegetable native to the Americas was soon discovered as the ideal lantern, and thus the carved pumpkin version of the Jack-o-Lantern began in earnest.
As the Jack-o-Lanterns were used to scare away wandering spirits, the most useful time to display them is on all Hallow's eve when the most dangerous spirits were out looking for trouble. To this day, the most prominent Halloween tradition, other than suffing yourself with too much candy, is carving a scary face into a pumpkin and displaying it, lit from within, at your door. There is no telling how many evil spirits have been turned back by that orange, lopsided grin over the years Ė or have they?