We wouldn’t dream of carving anything other than a pumpkin on Halloween. But the carving tradition actually originated in Ireland with the potato jack-o-lantern.
Stingy Jack and the origins of the potato jack-o-lantern
The history of jack-lanterns on Halloween originates with an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack from centuries ago.
According to History.com (cited below):
“According to the story, 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 convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use 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, which 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 year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into 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 ten more years.”
Jack sounds pretty savvy, but the story gets even more convoluted.
Jack of the Lantern
When Jack died, the folktale says that God refused to let him into heaven because of his sneaky deeds. The Devil didn’t want him either. So, “[h]e 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 ever since.”
That’s really not a story we could have guessed.
Nevertheless, Jack’s glowing figure was eventually referred to by the Irish as “Jack of the Lantern” and later simplified to “Jack O’Lantern.”
The spooky tradition of carving one’s own Jack-o-lantern started in Ireland and Scotland, where potatoes and turnips were plentiful. (Pumpkins are native to South America, so there were no pumpkins in Europe before colonization.)
Even creepier is England’s use of beets (which would look bloody and bright!).
The tradition came to America with immigrants, who realized the pumpkins made an even better vessel for Jack’s face. — WTF fun facts
Source: “How Jack O’Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth” — History.com