Roots in Celtic festivals, jack-o’-lanterns are relics of harvest rites, helped calm fear of roving spirits
Halloween has an orange complexion.
Triangular eyes and jagged teeth are features in round heads. Sometimes, a smile flickers across the face. On other autumn evenings, a scowl complements a blazing gaze.
Trick-or-treaters know the looks. October may be known as the season of the witch, but the last night of the month is the night of the living, leering pumpkin.
Jack-o’-lanterns have been lighting front porches, windows and yards in the United States for generations. Hollowed pumpkins, carved and converted into fire-lit faces, were invented by Scottish and Irish immigrants.
Ellen McHale, executive director of the New York Folklore Society in Schenectady, said folklore researchers trace the start of the gourds to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. “It was a celebration of the harvest,” McHale said.
The festival also represented a change of seasons, according to Helene Henderson’s reference book “Holiday Symbols and Customs.”
“Samhain also marked the beginning of the Celtic new year, while Samhain Eve marked the end of the old year,” Henderson says. “The night was a time of transition between the old and the new, a time when the separation between the world of the living and the world of the dead was very thin.”
The Celts believed that visits from the spirit world were possible as autumn moved toward winter. Bonfires were lit. People wore masks and costumes, Henderson wrote, to prevent wandering souls from recognizing them.
England and Ireland have another take on the jack-o’-lantern sensation. Henderson’s book said people in those European countries often saw pale, spooky-looking lights moving over bogs or marshes — they looked like people in the distance were walking with lantern. Science would later say those lights might have come from the spontaneous combustion of gases from rotting plant and animal life. Storytellers would say the lights were souls of sinners condemned to walk the earth after their deaths.
The first people to truly know Jack were from Great Britain.
“He was the spirit of a blacksmith named Jack who was too evil to get into heaven but who was not allowed into hell because he had outwitted the devil,” Henderson wrote of the legend. “Doomed to wander the earth forever, he scooped up a glowing ember with the vegetable he happened to be eating at the time and used it as a lantern to light his way.”
Scottish people who wanted to emulate Jack used turnips. Potatoes or large beets became lanterns of choice in Ireland. When Scottish and Irish immigrants who settled in the United States discovered pumpkins, Henderson said, they remembered their customs — and considered the orange rounds ideal shapes and sizes for jack-o’-lanterns.
“I think the jack-o’-lantern in general is sort of a merging of a number of different customs and beliefs,” McHale said. “One is there’s a connection to All Saints’ Day and if you use the older term, All Hallows Eve, which makes a connection to Halloween and there’s sort of a pre-Christian idea of souls wandering or spirits wandering during this period.”
Halloween was being observed in Scotland before the American Revolution.
“In the pre-Revolutionary War days, Robert Burns was writing about the old traditions of Halloween and how they had been done many years before,” said Pamela Apkarian-Russell, curator of the Castle Halloween Museum in Benwood, W.Va., which collects Halloween memorabilia.
“He wrote the poem ‘Halloween,’ he wrote the poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter,’ those were brought with the Celtic Wave when they first came to this country. Up to that time, it was just maybe a bonfire in the United States. They consolidated all the traditions together and made it into an American holiday.”
The lighted pumpkins, like masks, were used to keep evil spirits at bay. “Same thing with noisemakers,” Apkarian-Russell said.
She added that American jack-o’-lanterns began making their seasonal appearances in this country during the first half of the 1800s. Supernatural fun was sort of romantic.
“It was the fantasy of it,” Apkarian-Russell said. “Halloween was a mating holiday. It was a time when people got engaged and got married. There were all these different games played to get young people together. Things were different than they are today. You wouldn’t walk up to a girl and say, ‘Can I have a date?’ You just wouldn’t do that; it was not acceptable. You had to have permission from her parents and it was chaperoned. We’re talking about hundreds of years back. Our society has changed so much.”
Apkarian-Russell believes the ritual of carving a jack-o’-lantern has endured because everyone can do it.
“It’s nondenominational,” she said. “And it runs through all the holidays. Pumpkins, with pumpkin pie, are used through the new year. They’re plentiful and inexpensive.”
People who carve jack-o’-lanterns today sometimes cut ornate witches on broomsticks or cats with arched backs into the orange. Apkarian-Russell said creative carvings have been done before.
“I have a magazine from 1937, and someone had carved jack-o’-lanterns of Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito,” she said. “Can you imagine — these were the scariest political figures at the time — walking up to somebody’s porch and seeing these grinning things sitting on the porch? These weren’t just generic jack-o’-lanterns. These were evil beings who were destroying our world.”
Today’s jacks might be ceramic, or soft, pliable models that come with their own lighting systems.
Battery operated lights offer flicker or strobe effects for the real things. Apkarian-Russell isn’t sure she wants to throw out all her candles.
“I fluctuate on that,” she said. “I think the batteries are certainly a lot safer, especially around children,” she said. “Years ago, they used to send the kids out trick-or-treating with papier-mâché lanterns with real candles in them. The papier-mâché lanterns would catch fire, the children didn’t have fireproofing for their costumes, so they would have fires.
“Do I like the fact that years ago, they used to put real candles on Christmas trees? It looks beautiful but it isn’t safe. I tend to go toward safety. I think it depends on the situation, but I think safety should prevail.”
As long as there’s a light inside the October globe, that’s OK. As long as people are still following tradition, and carving faces on pumpkins, that’s fine too.
“It was a thing that people did together,” Apkarian-Russell said. “It was a family affair, and especially today where there is so little that families do together, it’s such a healthy thing.”