by Colleen McMahon
We are all familiar with modern-day Halloween traditions of dressing in costume, giving and receiving candy treats, and telling spooky stories. We do these things for fun, but they had their origins in serious religious festivals celebrated by the ancient Celts of Ireland and Scotland.
The Halloween season coincides with the traditional feast of Samhain, a night when the boundary between the material world and the spirit world was believed to be thin, and spirits could cross back and forth between this world and theirs. Spirits would wander abroad in the night, and spirits of the recently deceased could move into the next world. Our practice of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns originated in these beliefs.
The jack-o-lantern custom comes from two different Samhain traditions. The older one, which involved building bonfires for Samhain, was meant to guide new spirits to the next world and protect the households of the living against visiting spirits.
Later, an Irish folktale developed, which told a story of how a man named Jack tricked the Devil, making him angry. The Devil cursed Jack to wander the world and threw coal up from the fires of Hell to light Jack's way. Jack hollowed out a turnip and cut holes to make a lantern, then put the coal inside. Holding it up, he began his travels.
Over time, the bonfire custom and the vegetable lantern became merged, and the Irish people began to make lanterns from turnips on Samhain. To frighten away spirits as the bonfires had done, people carved scary faces on the turnips rather than just making simple holes.
When the Irish emigrated to the United States in large numbers in the 19th century, they brought their customs with them. Pumpkins, which are native to North America, were unknown in Ireland at the time. In the U.S., people discovered it was easier to find pumpkins than turnips, so they began to carve those instead.
The term "jack-o-lantern" originated with Jack in that old folktale. As he wandered, he became known as "Jack of the Lantern" or "Jack O'Lantern," and that name has come down to the present day to describe our carved and decorated pumpkins.