As the leaves change color and the air becomes crisp, there is one tradition that reigns supreme during the fall season: pumpkin carving. The act of meticulously hollowing out and adorning pumpkins with eerie or whimsical designs has become a staple of Halloween in the United States. But have you ever wondered where this age-old tradition originated?

The tradition of pumpkin carving can be traced back to the ancient Celts, who lived in what is now Ireland, UK. They celebrated a festival known as Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Samhain, which took place on October 31st, was a time when the boundary between the living and the dead was believed to be blurred, allowing spirits to roam the Earth.

Image credit: Noémie Polverini

To ward off malevolent spirits and honor their deceased loved ones, the Celts would carve frightening faces into turnips, placing them in windows and doorways to protect their homes. These grotesque faces served as a form of early Halloween decoration and were meant to frighten away any wandering spirits.

But then, why pumpkins?

The practice of carving vegetables continued in Europe for centuries, but it wasn’t until Irish immigrants brought this tradition to North America in the 19th century that pumpkins became the canvas of choice. In North America, pumpkins were a more native and abundant vegetable, and easier to carve than the traditional turnips used in Ireland. Their bright orange color and larger size made them the ideal medium for creative expression.

By the late 1800s, the term “jack-o’-lantern” became popular in North America, derived from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. In the story, Stingy Jack outwitted the Devil on multiple occasions but was ultimately denied entry to both Heaven and Hell upon his death. As a result, he was sentenced to roam the Earth with a carved-out turnip illuminated by an ember from the fiery pits of Hell. Over time, this tale evolved, and the turnip was replaced with a pumpkin, giving birth to the iconic jack-o’-lantern.

Today, pumpkin carving has evolved into a highly creative and artistic tradition. People of all ages engage in the activity, often transforming simple pumpkins into intricate works of art. 

Pumpkin carving, a tradition deeply rooted in Celtic folklore, has become an iconic part of Halloween celebrations worldwide. While its origins lie in warding off malevolent spirits and remembering the deceased, it has since evolved into a creative and joyful activity that brings people together during the fall season. The transition from turnips to pumpkins has made the tradition more accessible and allowed for greater artistic expression. So, the next time you carve a pumpkin, remember the centuries of history and folklore that have culminated in this beloved autumn pastime.