Pumpkin carving is a long-standing Halloween tradition. This year, about 44% of Americans are expected to partake in this activity. But how did carving faces and other designs in a pumpkin come to be a widespread tradition?
It began in Ireland, where on the day that eventually became known as Halloween, mourners placed candles into the empty skulls of their loved ones in order to honor them. Over time, the practice evolved into carving skulls into large white turnips, which they believed provided protection against evil spirits. When Irish immigrants came to the U.S. in the 19th century, they carried over the tradition using pumpkins instead, as it was a native crop that was abundant and easy to carve into.
The idea of the Jack-o-lantern in the U.S. began to take hold in the 19th century, with stories such as “Sleepy Hollow” associating the carved pumpkins with scary stories and Halloween. The name Jack-o-lantern also descends from pagan tradition, where it was common to call someone that you didn’t know “jack,” and night watchmen became known as Jack-of-the-lantern, or jack-o-lantern.