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Why We Carve Pumpkins (and Other Vegetables to Turn into Lanterns)

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Dig lightly into Celtic lore this time of year, as one does, and you'll learn that the first Jack-o'-Lantern wasn't actually a pumpkin at all—he was a man named Stingy Jack who invited the Devil out for a drink and then conned him into paying for it. (Have to say, the Devil should have known better.)

Emboldened, perhaps, by the Devil's fury—we can only speculate about the myriad why's in this legend—Jack cons the Devil yet again, dies, and is promptly banished from both Heaven and Hell with only a burning piece of coal set inside of a carved turnip to guide his way.

A turnip!

A family of squash-o'-lanterns.
A family of squash-o'-lanterns. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Jack of the Lantern, the Irish's first name for this wandering ghoul, eventually became Jack O'Lantern, and 19th-Century Irish and Scottish people started setting out their own turnips, potatoes, and "mangelwurzels" carved with scary faces to ward him away from their homes.

Irish immigrants brought the tradition stateside, finding that local pumpkins lent themselves quite well to the task.

Japanese Carving Awls

Japanese Carving Awls

Vintage Zinc Bin

Vintage Zinc Bin


Besides teaching a few very good lessons, such as Pay for your own drink and Do not punk the Devil, the story of Stingy Jack might also inspire you to shake up your carving game.

For the image at the top of this article, we carved all manner of squash: butternut, kabocha, spaghetti, acorn, etc. Tops lopped off, they're all about as easy to hollow out and carve as a pumpkin—but the shapes are silly and fun in a whole new way. You could also try with potatoes or mangelwurzel, of course, if you want Jack himself to steer clear.

Do you go all-out with your Halloween decorations? Tell us how, in the comments!

Tags: Halloween, Food History