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Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?

by Lainey Harlow, Junior Editor

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What seems so commonplace in the early fall months might shock one from another culture: pumpkin carving. You buy a pumpkin, you gut it, and then carve designs with knives. Sounds strange when you think about it, doesn’t it?

Pumpkins, native to North America, were not the original jack-o’-lanterns. According to the History Channel, the association of jack-o’-lanterns with spook and fear originated with an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Jack, an old, drunken trickster, offered his soul to the devil in exchange for a drink. The devil was said to have changed into a coin to pay for the drink, but Jack put the coin in his pocket near a cross. The devil, trapped in the cross’s presence, offered to let Jack keep his soul for ten more years. Ten years, later, Jack once again escaped his soulless fate by trapping the devil in a tree surrounded by crosses. Years later, Jack died and was denied entrance into both Heaven and Hell. He was forced to wander the Earth aimlessly with only an ember-filled turnip to light his path.

The Irish carved potatoes and turnips, not pumpkins, while the English used large beets. When the Irish and Scottish immigrated in large waves in the 1800s, they brought their halloween-like festivities through the festival Samhain. By 1866, people slowly began carving pumpkins, which made better jack-o’-lanterns than beets and turnips. The earliest evidence of pumpkin-carving was the 1850 poem “The Pumpkin” by John Greenleaf Whittier in which he describes the tradition of gutting, carving, and illuminating a pumpkin.

Halloween as we now come to celebrate it, including elaborate pumpkin carving, had become commonplace by the 1930s.

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Why Do We Carve Pumpkins?