Jack-o’-lanterns, those grinning and eerie faces carved into pumpkins, are an unmistakable emblem of Halloween. They adorn doorsteps and decorate porches, casting an enchanting and, at times, ominous glow during the bewitching season. But have you ever wondered about the history and folklore that birthed this peculiar tradition? Let’s delve into the enigmatic past of jack-o’-lanterns. 

The Celtic Roots

The history of jack-o’-lanterns can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, celebrated on October 31st. Samhain marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of a dark, cold winter. The Celts believed that on this night, the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, allowing souls to enter the mortal realm. To ward off evil entities and guide the souls of the deceased, they carved strange faces into radishes and other vegetables, placing a candle or small flame inside. These strange creations will light the way and serve as a talisman. 

Names and Legends 

The term “jack-o’-lantern” itself has a fascinating history. In Irish folklore, the name comes from a character named Stingy Jack. Legend has it that Stingy Jack was a cunning man who fooled the Devil not once but twice. After his death, Jack was denied entry into Heaven and Hell, leaving him to wander the Earth forever with nothing but burning coal in a hollow turnip to light his way. The Irish began calling him “Jack of the Lantern,” which later evolved into “jack-o’-lantern.” 

The transition to pumpkins 

The custom of carving turnips and other root vegetables crossed the Atlantic with Irish immigrants who settled in the United States during the 19th century. In the New World, these immigrants discovered that pumpkins are more abundant and easier to carve than radishes. Pumpkins quickly became the fabric of choice for creating jack-o’-lanterns. They still maintain the same goal: to banish evil spirits and illuminate the way for the souls of the deceased. 

The Evolution of the Modern Jack-o-lantern 

Over the years, jack-o’-lantern carving has evolved from its original purpose as a supernatural foil to a beloved Halloween tradition. Pumpkin carving allows for many creative expressions, from sinister grimaces to fanciful characters. Families and friends carve jack-o-lanterns together, turning the tiny pumpkin into a canvas for artistic exploration. 

Carving techniques and trends 

With the advent of modern tools, such as pumpkin carving kits and stencils, the art of jack-o-lantern carving has become more accessible and complex. Advanced techniques such as shading, relief carving and even multi-pumpkin carving appeared. Now, people try to outdo each other with their imaginative creations, and contests to find the most beautiful jack-o’-lantern creations have become popular. 


Jack-o’-Lanterns have come a long way from their Celtic origins as protective talismans to the artistic expressions we see today. These carved pumpkins have transcended their folk origins to become a treasured part of Halloween celebrations, symbolizing creativity, community, and the lasting bond between the living and the dead. So, as you embark on your pumpkin-carving adventure this Halloween, remember that you’re carrying on a tradition that spans centuries and continents, lighting the way for the season’s supernatural and playful spirits.

By Ash Michaud

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