Irish folklore considered the source of the jack-o-lantern

A carved pumpkin is the traditional symbol of Halloween.

Traditional symbols influence and define our holidays.

Most make sense — an evergreen wreath on the door at Christmas, gourds and Pilgrims for the Thanksgiving table and fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Some, however, have roots in superstition or maybe just plain folklore.

Like why in the world do people carve pumpkins for Halloween?

Thank the Irish for that one.

Legend has it that in 18th-century Ireland, a foul-mouthed drunk and notorious miser named Stingy Jack pulled one over on the devil. The story says that Jack invited the devil to a local pub for a drink. When the bill came, neither party was quick to pony up. Since Jack was perpetually sans coins, he persuaded the devil to turn himself into a six pence to cover the tab. After the devil obliged, Jack skipped on the bill and held the devil hostage by sliding the coin into his pocket along with a silver cross.

Jack then made a deal with the devil. He got the devil to agree that if released from his pocket, the devil could not come after Jack for anywhere from one to 10 years (the length of time depends on who’s telling the story). A deal was struck, and the pair parted company.

But when the agreed upon timeframe expired, the devil went looking for Jack, bent on revenge.

Once again, Jack got the better of the devil by persuading him to climb a tree and bring down an apple for Jack to take with him on his journey to hell. No sooner had the devil scaled the tree than Jack carved a cross into the trunk, stranding the devil a second time.

Jack offered to let the devil down, but only if the devil promised to never claim Jack’s soul for hell. The devil had no choice and complied.

Years later, when Jack died, St. Peter supposedly turned him away at the pearly gates because of his questionable credentials on Earth. The devil couldn’t claim Jack either, because of their agreement at the tree. So the devil gave Jack a lump of burning coal, which would light his way through purgatory. Jack carried the coal inside a hollowed-out turnip.

As the story of Stingy Jack got around, Irish families began to place carved turnips in their windows to keep Jack and other ghouls from entering the house. When the Irish immigrated to the United States, they brought the tradition with them. They soon realized that the pumpkin, which was native to their new homeland, was a far better fruit for carving than turnips. Irish immigrants believed carved pumpkins kept the devil and other spirits at bay.

Which is why jack-o’-lanterns are the recognized symbol of Halloween.

These days, carved pumpkins are more than simply a warning to Stingy Jack and the devil to keep moving. True Halloween fanatics create near art forms with their carvings, employing a lot of creativity and frequently power tools.

But you needn’t be ashamed if your pumpkin carving prowess isn’t of museum quality. Or if you subscribe to the simple, traditional face of Halloween. A few basic tools and a template and voila! The ghosts and goblins arriving at your door will be tricked into believing a piece of candy is the only treat they’ll receive.

Pumpkin carving 101

Basic tools:

A serrated knife

Large metal spoon or ice cream scoop to remove seeds

Small paring knives for carving

Use the serrated knife to carve a hole in the bottom of the pumpkin. This cuts off any bumps, allowing the pumpkin to sit level. It also provides a way to place the pumpkin over a light source, instead of reaching inside to light a candle. You’ll want to cut an opening on the top of the pumpkin (think: hat) as a vent if you’re planning to use a candle for illumination.

After scooping out the seeds and pulp, wipe down the outside of the pumpkin so you will have a clean carving surface. If using a template, tape and trace your design onto the pumpkin (more power to you if you freehand a design). Take a small paring knife and follow the markings to bring your creation to life.

Once carved, pumpkins have a tendency to deteriorate fairly quickly. Protect your masterpiece from mold and dehydration (the two main reasons for pumpkin rot) by adding a small amount of bleach to a spray bottle filled with water and spraying the pumpkin daily. The bleach fights mold, while the water keeps the pumpkin from drying out too quickly.

If you choose votive or pillar candles as a light source for your pumpkin, be mindful of safety if you place the pumpkin on your front porch. Traveling herds of trick or treaters are often more focused on the treat than paying attention to their surroundings. A better choice for outside illumination are battery-operated tea lights, which produce no flame and an eerie flicker.

But if pumpkin carving just isn’t a skill in your toolbox, don’t despair — there are always Milky Way candy bars and next year.

Happy haunting!

More info

If your paring knives barely cut a tomato, you might want to consider a pumpkin carving kit. Each kit is packaged with heavy-duty plastic components, including a scoop, needle tool and carving saw, and often include stencils or templates. Plan to spend around $10 or less. For those who intend to make a career with their carvings, kits with sturdier tools can be found at specialty stores and start at around $20.

For printable design templates, visit

Contract Publishing

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine