There is a connection in folklore and popular culture between pumpkins and the supernatural, so it’s no wonder that carving pumpkins at Halloween has become tradition in the U.S.
The custom of carving lanterns from pumpkins derives from folklore about a lost soul wandering the earth. In Ireland, a man called Stingy Jack was so manipulative, he caught the attention of the Devil. Admiring him for his evil deeds, the Devil came to take Jack’s soul one night. Jack, however outwitted him, causing the Devil to agree to never taking Jack’s soul. When Jack indeed died, his soul went to heaven where he was turned away for his evil deeds. He then went to hell looking for a place to spend eternity, but the Devil was unable to take his soul because of the agreement they had. The best he could do was offer Jack a single ember of coal which Jack carried in a carved out turnip to light his way while he wandered the earth. He became known as Jack of the Lantern.
This legend became the basis for carving scary faces into turnips and other root vegetables and setting them outside of doors, and in windowsills, lit with a candle, in order to keep the spirit of Stingy Jack away. These have become known as Jack O’Lanterns. The Irish also believed the lanterns would light the way for good spirits to visit on the one night a year, that we know in the U.S. as Halloween.
When the Irish began immigrating to America, they brought this tradition with them. However, they found carving pumpkins to be more appealing than the smaller root vegetables, and this tradition has been continued since.
Jack O’Lanterns, as they have become known, are a variety of pumpkin bred for carving. Pie pumpkins tend to be heavier with thicker skin, while carving pumpkins are bred for thinner skin and less meat, making it easier to carve. However, any pumpkin will work.
When choosing a pumpkin for carving at Halloween, try to choose one that feels as heavy as it looks. Pie pumpkins tend to weight much more than they appear. Carving pumpkins have a meat that is more stringy like Spaghetti Squash. While they are still edible, they may not taste the same as a pie pumpkin.
Carving pumpkins for Halloween has gone from making simple scary or funny faces at the kitchen table, a children’s favorite, in households all over the U.S., to full fledged works of art, carved using professional carving tools and elaborate designs made by professional artists.
The tradition of carving pumpkins, however, may not have started with Halloween in mind in the U.S. It has been noted that pumpkins have been carved as centerpieces for tables as far back as the 1600’s in America, during the final harvest gathering. Since pumpkins are a fall harvest food offering many benefits, they became synonymous with the fall harvest. Smaller pumpkins would be carved into delightful designs and sometimes even lit with a candle to decorate long harvest tables where the food was served during the celebrations. Eventually, this tradition gave way to our modern Thanksgiving, with the pumpkin still in the spotlight, second only, after the roasted turkey.
Nevertheless, pumpkin carving has remained a favorite Halloween tradition, and today can be seen in front of many households across the country. It is estimated that 80% of all pumpkin sales happen in October and used mostly for carving.
Today, while carving lanterns from root vegetables remains tradition in many parts of Great Britian, there is an increasing demand for pumpkins for carving. In America, the tradition of carving Jack O’Lanterns from pumpkins remains the favorite.
So this year, while gathered around the kitchen table carving pumpkins for Halloween, tell a scary little tale to spark the imagination and see what frightening delights you can come up with!