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Why Do We Carve Jack-o-Lanterns, Anyway?

The Jack-o-lantern is a time honored Halloween tradition going back centuries. Yes, centuries. But why do we carve up perfectly good produce, only to throw out the guts and set it on fire?

There’s an old Irish Folktale called “The Legend of Stingy Jack,” who, according to the tale, cheated the Devil (yes… THE Devil) not once, but twice, and made a deal that the Devil couldn’t collect his soul. Unfortunately, Jack didn’t lead a good life, so when he died, God (yes… THE God) denied him entrance into heaven. Since the Devil couldn’t collect his soul, the Devil made a point to not let him into hell, either. To make an example of Stingy Jack, the Devil doomed him to walk the Earth with nothing but a burning piece of coal in a hollowed out turnip to light his way, as a make-shift lantern. Stingy Jack became Jack of the Lantern, which then became Jack O’Lantern.

As with any folktale, that’s the basic gist of it, it varies based on storyteller and region of the British Isles where it’s told. It has variations predominantly in Ireland and Scotland, but also Wales and England. People would in turn set up their own hollowed out turnips with scary faces and embers inside as a way to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. When settlers came over to the New World, where pumpkins are native and grow plentiful, the legend got adapted for these larger gourds, and thus… tradition is born.

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