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The history and art of the jack-o-lantern

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Jack-o-lanterns—an Old World tradition with a New World facelift. PHOTO COURTESY OF PEXELS.COM

By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – There is no better way to tease the upcoming Halloween holiday than by carving up a jack-o-lantern.

The ritual is well-known for anyone that grew up in the U.S., which begins at the local pumpkin patch where only the largest or most shapely pumpkins catch the eye, inspiring visions of pumpkin-carving greatness.

After hauling the pumpkin off the patch, typically with the aid of a parent or wheelbarrow, the fun begins when the tools—knives and spoons of varying sizes—are laid out over a makeshift canvas of newspaper. Of course, the pumpkins are there too, washed and waiting for a facelift.

Cue the scooping of seeds and pulp, the gouging of triangle eyeholes and crooked teeth, and the delight of placing the pumpkin on a stoop or house’s entryway with a lit candle placed in its belly.

And while this cherished routine might feel familiar to most, the history behind the jack-o-lantern is something that eludes the majority of Halloween revelers, and we must turn to the Old World and to immigrants for its genesis.

According to History.com, the roots of the jack-o-lantern can be found in Irish folklore, which holds that “Stingy Jack” routinely fooled the Devil in the hopes of seeking sanctuary from his wicked ways.

Stingy Jack first invited Lucifer to a drink, asking the demonic king to transform him into a coin to pay for their brews. Once in coin form, Jack placed the Devil in his pocket next to a cross, preventing the Devil from returning to his typical form. Desperate to return to normal, the Devil agreed to leave Jack unharmed for one year, as well as relinquish his soul to heaven should he die.

Next, Jack convinced the Devil to climb into the branches of a fruit tree, carving a cross on the tree trunk while the Devil searched for fruit—in order to climb down, the Devil promised to leave Jack be for 10 additional years.

As legend would have it, Jack died, but God refused to let a trickster beyond the pearly gates, and the Devil, keeping his word, would not allow his soul into hell.

He sent Jack off into the world, with only a burning coal for light, which Jack placed into a carved turnip. Jack forever roamed the Earth as a damned soul, inspiring centuries of Irish and Scottish people to carve turnips of their own, replete with scary faces, to ward off evil spirits such as Jack.

So, as people from the British Isles immigrated to the U.S., so too did their customs, though they adopted the use of the American pumpkin instead of turnips like in days of old.

Put your pumpkin carving skills to the test at Lone Peak Cinema’s Pumpkin King & Queen Carving Competition on Saturday, Oct. 26, from 5-7 p.m. Visit bigskytowncetner.com for more information. 

Quick jack-o-lantern carving tips:

  • Get a pumpkin with a greener stem, ensuring freshness and proper handling
  • Oddly shaped pumpkins can make for some of the best designs
  • Be sure to scoop every piece of innards out, making your pumpkin less likely to rot
  • Spray your carved pumpkin with water to keep it firm
  • Carve your pumpkin no more than 24 hours before an event for optimal freshness and shape
  • Refrigerate as necessary to prolong the life of your jack-o-lantern

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