Why do we carve out pumpkins at Halloween?

October 30, 2010

Why do we carve pumpkins at HalloweenPart 3 of 3 in the week of pumpkins……..

History and legend surrounds the story about this annual ritual and there are many variations of the reasoning behind it, but most of them agree – there was a mean, stingy man who lived in Ireland years ago named Jack, and he did a deal with the Devil. This is one of the tales ………

The story goes that Jack had stolen some property from some villagers and was being run out-of-town. As he was making his escape he met the Devil who told him it was time for Jack to die. However, Jack had the gift of the gab and managed to persuade the Devil that he knew of a way that he would be able to have some fun and torment the God-loving villagers instead.

Jack persuaded the Devil to turn into a coin and Jack would then use that coin to pay for the stolen goods. The idea being that as the Devil was able to change shape whenever he wanted, as soon as the villagers had possession of the coin it would disappear, and the villagers would then fight among themselves, blaming each other as to whom had stolen it.

The Devil agreed and turned himself into a coin that Jack then placed into his wallet. It was only when he was in the wallet that the Devil found he was nestled next to a cross that Jack had also picked up in the village.  The cross stripped him of all his powers.

Jack being a trickster agreed that he would only let the Devil go if he agreed never to take his soul.

Several years later the villain died. As he made his way to the Gates of Heaven he was turned away, he had led too bad a life to be allowed into Heaven. So he made his way to the gates of Hell instead, but of course the Devil had promised not to take Jack’s soul and he therefore barred him from entering there too.

Jack was trapped with nowhere to go. It was dark and he asked the Devil how he would see as he had no light. The legend claims that he was tossed a light from the embers that would never burn out as it was from the flames of hell.

Turnips were apparently one of Jack’s favourite foods in the living world so he carved one out, placed the ember inside and began to wander the Earth, looking for a place to rest.  From that time on he became known as Jack of the Lantern.

Why do we carve pumpkins at HalloweenThe tradition of carving a swede or turnip seems to have originated in Ireland and they were left on the doorsteps of houses on All Hallow’s Eve as an ‘offering’, or a treat, to prevent spirits playing tricks. Pumpkins were more readily available in America and were generally used there instead.

*Samhain (pronounced sauwain)

The 31st October – Samhain (or Halloween as we now seem to call it), stems from the belief that the Celtic year begins (as life begins) in the dark (in the womb). It’s a threshold time in the Celtic calendar when the veil between this world and the Otherworld, where the dead and supernatural beings live, becomes permeable and the beings that inhabit it can walk among mortals.

It’s a time with the Sidhe, (the Good Folk, Little People or Tuatha De Danann), move from their summer residences to their winter homes. (Farmers today will still not farm land that has Fairy Forts for fear of upsetting the Little People.) The Sidhe can be seen riding in procession from one Fairy Fort (or rath) to another across the fields.

It’s traditional to put out a bowl of milk or a piece of cake for Sidhe as they pass by.

In the old times all crops  had to be gathered in before Samhain and no berries were picked as it was believed that the Pooka would spit on them.  The last sheaf from the harvest was named the Hag (or Cailleach), who was formally revered as the crone aspect of the Celtic triple goddess, but has now dwindled into the figure of the witch.

*Reference : Celebrating Irish Festivals by Ruth Marshall


  • Reply Mr. H. October 31, 2010 at 3:36 am

    Now I have heard of turnips being used for jack o' lanterns but have never heard this story before…how interesting. I will have to remember the tale of Jack of the Lantern instead of jack o' lantern. I am looking forward to telling this story to the grandson as he always gets excited about carving pumpkins.

  • Reply Greenside Up October 31, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    There are lots of myths but the ending is always the same…. Jack gets turned away from Hell and has to wonder between the worlds in the dark, with just his lantern to light his way. Our children enjoyed this story too.

  • Reply Lily October 22, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    That's a brilliant one Dee, had never heard that before! of course, I think the real reason for hollowing out a pumpkin is to make pumpkin pie and pumpkin soup… any excuse, and it's the one time I can get the kids to eat it 🙂

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