Plant Lore: The Story Behind Jack-O'-Lanterns

Our front porch after a busy day of pumpkin carving. 

Do you feel the urge to cover every available surface in decorative gourds this time of year? Me, too. Ever wonder why we take things a step further by carving out spooky faces and autumn tableaus?


The story stems from the Irish myth of Stingy Jack. Upon his death, Stingy Jack was deemed too unscrupulous to even be let into hell so he was forced to wander the earth at night with only a lump of coal to light the way. Crafty guy that he was, he fashioned a lantern out of a large turnip by hollowing it out and placing the coal inside, earning him the moniker of Jack of the Lantern, or Jack-O'-Lantern. And so each year on the eve of Samhain, what we now refer to as Halloween, the Scots and Irish would carve scary faces into large root vegetables and light them with coals with the hope of warding off any evil spirits.

A traditionally carved turnip Jack-o-Lantern. Image by Fiantus courtesy iStock. 

The tradition evolved into carving the larger and more readily available pumpkin when the Irish and Scots immigrated to the U.S.