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Have Jack-O’-Lanterns Always Been Made From Pumpkins?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 17, 2024
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Now that you’ve had your fill of candy and other goodies for Halloween, it’s time to tell you about the history of that carved pumpkin that's probably still sitting outside your front door.

The practice of carving “jack-o’-lanterns” began in Ireland and Scotland, where Halloween (All Hallows Eve) was linked with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the start of winter. The transition between life and death was believed to be at its narrowest during Samhain, allowing spirits to roam freely between both realms. For protection, people carved faces into produce – mostly turnips, but sometimes potatoes, radishes and beets – illuminated with candles inside the cavities.

From turnip to pumpkin:

  • Irish immigrants to America found that pumpkins worked a lot better than turnips for making lanterns, leading to the adoption of the pumpkin jack-o'-lanterns we know and love.

  • A particularly ominous entity associated with All Hallows Eve was Stingy Jack, a deceitful drunkard doomed to roam the Earth with only an ember inside a carved-out turnip to light his way.

  • The term "jack-o'-lantern" was originally used to describe ignis fatuus (literally, "foolish fire"), a visual phenomenon known as a will-o'-the-wisp in English folklore. Its earliest known use dates to the 1660s.

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