The origin of Halloween dates back at least 3,000 years to the Celtic celebration of Samhain (pronounced “sow-ain”) – better known as “Lord of the Dead” or “Day of the Dead”. The festival was held starting at sundown on October 31st and lasted until sundown on November 1st. It was believed that the souls of the dead were closest to this world and was the best time to contact them to say good bye or ask for assistance.
In Ireland and Scotland, people carved Jack O’Lanterns out of turnips or gourds, which were then set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against malevolent evil spirits. Burning lumps of coal were used inside as a source of light, later to be replaced by candles.
When Irish immigrants arrived in America they brought the Jack O’Lantern tradition with them, but soon discovered that the American pumpkin was larger and easier to carve, and a new Halloween tradition was born. Halloween didn’t really catch on in America until the late 1800s and has been celebrated in a variety of ways ever since.
The Irish legend goes: “ Stingy Jack” invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he conveniently convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin which Jack could use in order to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross. This prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one whole year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack tricked the Devil yet again into climbing onto a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for 10 more years.
Soon after Jack’s death God would not allow such an unsavoury figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
Halloween pumpkins are usually larger with a thin layer of stringy flesh that is easy to carve than the standard cooking pumpkins which are smaller with thick, deep orange flesh with a sweeter taste.