Each October, classrooms and families alike make their annual pumpkin patch pilgrimage, sorting through hay, mud, and pumpkin runts to return with the perfect canvas for a jack-o’-lantern. But when you think about it, hallowing out a large gourd to put a face on, candle in, and display on your front step would be kind of hard to explain to, say, visiting aliens. So why do we do it? Halloween itself dates back at least 2,000 years in Ireland to the celebration of the Celtic New Year, called Samhain or “Summer’s End.” Celts believed that on the night before the holiday, October 31st, deceased souls were closest to our world and could contact the living.
According to legend, one particular soul was that of “Stingy Jack,” a man who had managed to trick the Devil twice while still alive. After he died, God wouldn’t allow him into Heaven due to his deceit, and the Devil wouldn’t let him into Hell. Jack was sent off with nothing but coal to light the way, placing it in a carved-out turnip and roaming the Earth for eternity with his make-shift lantern. The Irish began calling him “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, believers created their own versions of Jack’s lantern with turnips and potatoes. Each October 31st, they placed them on their front porches to ward away Jack and other evil spirits.
After the Romans conquered the Celts, and Pope Gregory III moved the Catholic feast of All Saints Day to November 1st, the two holidays of Samhain and All Saints Day blended. Catholic-Irish immigrants brought the tradition with them to the States and began using pumpkins, which were easy to come by and native to America, to make their jack-o’-lanterns. The holiday grew more to be more widespread and ultimately secular, and the tradition stuck.