The traditions surrounding Halloween are truly ancient; dating back to the pre-Christian era and the Celtic festival of Samhain, traditions such as dressing up (known as Guising in Scotland) are widespread. There is one tradition, however, that is arguably more iconic than any other: carving Jack O'Lanterns.
These days, we think of large, orange pumpkins, or their pale cousins' ghost pumpkins, carved with funny or spooky faces and scenes. Everyone is familiar with these glowing Halloween decorations, but few people realize that the original Jack O'Lanterns originate in the same part of the world as Samhain (pronounced Sow-en in Irish and Sav-en in Scots Gaihdlig): Ireland and Scotland. What's more, the original Jack O' Lantern wasn't a pumpkin, but a turnip!
Stingy Jack and the Devil: The Advent of Jack O' Lanterns
While the practice of carving turnips and other root vegetables to show faces or ominous scenes is common to both Irish and Scottish culture, the legend that started it all is Irish.
Do you know the story of Stingy Jack?
Stingy Jack was, as you might imagine, known for being mean with his money. According to the legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to drink with him, and rather than paying for his own drink he convinced the Devil to transform into a coin that could be used to buy their drinks.
Of course, upon receiving the coin, Stingy Jack realized he would rather keep the money and so he tricked the Devil by keeping him in a pocket with a silver crucifix which prevented him from transforming once more.
Jack then made a deal with the Devil that he should leave Jack alone for a year and that if Jack should die, the Devil would not take his soul. The next year when the Devil returned, Jack tricked him into climbing a tree to pick a piece of fruit and then carved the sign of the cross into the trunk, trapping him once more.
This time, Jack made the Devil promise to leave him alone for a further ten years. Soon after this deal was made, Stingy Jack died and upon passing over was rejected from heaven; God didn't want such an unsavoury character. The Devil, keeping his word, would not take Jack's soul and denied him entry to hell, instead sending his soul to wander the earth with only a burning coal to light his way.
Stingy Jack placed the burning coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. As a result, the Irish began to refer to this specter as "Jack of the Lantern" and, eventually, "Jack O'Lantern", coining the name we now know so well.
How Pumpkins Became the Iconic Jack O'Lantern
When Irish and Scottish immigrants settled in America, they brought their culture and traditions with them. One thing that did change, however, was the vegetable of choice. While Scottish and Irish people were used to hollowing and carving rutabaga swedes' (also called turnips, neeps, or tumshies), they quickly found that a vegetable native to the American continent was not only larger but easier to carve than their transatlantic cousins.
As is so often the case with cultural traditions, this one has spread and changed with time, but the heart of it remains the same. Just as Scottish and Irish people carved lanterns from turnips and donned disguises to move unseen by the ghouls and spirits that were said to walk the land on the dark night that marked the passage from Autumn to Winter, children across the world now wear disguises and carve pumpkins, going from house to house trick or treating.
Of course, the actual tradition of trick or treating is somewhat of a mixed tradition that comes both from the pre-Christian tradition of guising and the later traditions of 'souling' and 'mumming' whereby children visited the houses of affluent neighbours to receive gifts of food and ale (souling), or adults performed in costume for food and drink (mumming).
So, when you think about carving a Jack O'Lantern this year, consider using a turnip for a slice of historical authenticity!