by Craig Dimitri

Believe it or not, the venerable tradition of the “Jack o’ Lantern” started out with turnips, not pumpkins.  The ancient Celts were the progenitors of the holiday, as they celebrated the festival of Samhain.  But no ancient Celt had ever seen one, since pumpkins are native to the New World…

Samhain is a Gaelic word, meaning literally “summer’s end”.  (It is pronounced, phonetically, “sow” – “inn”, with “sow” rhyming with “cow”.)  The story of the “Jack o’ Lantern” is bound up with Samhain, for the following reason. 

The Celts (who once dominated the British Isles) believed that during Samhain, the spirits of the deceased were permitted to return to the land of the living, in search of comfort and familiarity.  The legend of the “Jack o’ Lantern” stems from an old Celtic story, about a fellow that had successfully tricked the devil, and so as a result, even hell wouldn’t take him (there are several versions of the story as to how this trick took place, but they all end up with the same result). 

But Jack was not eligible for entrance to heaven, either.  As a result, he was condemned to wander errantly around the earth, going neither to heaven nor hell.  To light his way, Jack would have a hollowed-out turnip, as a lantern (one particularly vivid version states that the turnip was lit with an ember from the fires of hell.)

He, hence, became known as “Jack of the Lantern”, which eventually corrupted into “Jack o’ Lantern”.  Here is where the pumpkins come in.  The pumpkin is native to the Western Hemisphere, and was unknown to Europeans, prior to the Columbian voyages of the late 15th century.

When Irish immigrants arrived in America in great numbers, during the 19th century, they brought the Samhain festival (which had, many centuries earlier, been Christianized into “All Hallows’ Eve”), with them.  Upon arrival, particularly in the New England region where many Irish-Americans settled, they discovered that the pumpkin was a far better plant, for the creation of jack o’ lanterns, than the turnip.  It was larger and easier to carve.  And in that manner, a new and improved twist was placed on an ancient tradition.

Read more at the History Channel’s online exhibit on the History of Halloween, which can be found at

Questions?  Comments?  Information?  You can contact Craig Dimitri at 


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