Pumpkins and their gutted and mutilated offspring jack-o-lanterns are THE most pervasive symbol of Halloween in the United States. Recall that the Peanuts Halloween classic is called It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, that the Headless Horseman’s temporary head is a jack-o-lantern, and that Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, not the Bat King or the Witch King.

great-pumpkin

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

From its humble triangular eyes-nose-mouth beginnings — still the most pervasive version — the jack-o-lantern has evolved into intricate and spectacular sculptures by such experts and artists as Extreme Pumpkins, Villafane Studios, Zombie Pumpkins, Maniac Pumpkin Carvers, Xtreme Carvers, The Pumpkin Geek, StoneyKins pumpkin patterns, and Pumpkin Masters carving supply company.

Extreme Pumpkins

Extreme Pumpkins

Perhaps most spectacular of all is the annual RISE of the Jack O’Lanterns extravaganza with over 5,000 carved pumpkins creatively arranged along a scenic walking path and set to a musical score. This year RISE will be in Los Angeles, Long Island, Boston, and New Jersey.

RISE of the Jack O'Lanterns

RISE of the Jack O’Lanterns

Much like Halloween itself, pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns have exploded artistically, culturally, and commercially with no end in sight. But how did the cheerful orange orb come to be associated with Halloween in the first place? Though sources are fuzzy, a number of accounts state that Irish villagers sometimes made lanterns of vegetables, plentiful at fall harvest time, in particular turnips, beets, of potatoes, and these were commonly used for Halloween wanderings. From a distance, the carrier would disappear in the gloom while the glow of the lantern would bob and weave down the lane. This eerie traveling light greatly resembled another startling but not unknown light, the ignis fatuus, “foolish fire,” the spontaneously combustible methane gas generated by decaying matter in low-oxygen marshes and bogs common in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England.

Traditional Irish turnip jack-o-lantern - Museum of Irish Country Life

Irish turnip jack-o-lantern

Prior to this rather pedantic scientific explanation of the phenomenon, legend had it that the creepy lights were the souls of the lost condemned to roam the earth until judgment day. Names for this phenomenon included “will-o-the-wisp” and “jack-o-lantern.” People were told to never follow a will-o-the-wisp as it would lure them to a watery death in the deepest, darkest swamp. Over time the vegetable lantern and swamp gas occurrences came together under a folktale, varying widely in the details. Here is a composite version.

Will O' the Wisp

Will O’ the Wisp

Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. “If you pay for it, the Devil replied. “But you can change into any shape you choose,” pleaded Jack. Feeling expansive that day, the Devil agreed, changed himself into a shiny sixpence. Jack, being equally stingy and duplicitous, decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Stingy Jack

Stingy Jack

But then Jack died. Saint Peter would not allow such a reprobate through the Pearly Gates. The Devil, annoyed by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, forbade Jack entrance into hell, sending Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish called this clever but homeless figure “Jack of the Lantern,” and then “Jack-O-Lantern.” In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors on Halloween to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.

irish-jack-o-lanterns

Like most things Halloweeny, the carved and lit vegetable tradition came to the U.S. with the great waves of Irish and Scottish immigrants of the 19th century. In America they found large, round, pliant pumpkins ideal for jack-o-lanterns and the die was cast.

(featured image via riptheskull Flickr)

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