Learn about interesting pumpkin history and folklore (including where the jack-o-lantern came from), plus modern pumpkin facts that will change the way you look at this delectable fall food.
The History of the Jack-O-Lantern
If you’ve driven through a typical American neighborhood in the fall, you’ve probably noticed that many people have a carved pumpkins on their porch. These “jack-o-lanterns” are often carved into scary, ghoulish caricatures.
The reason for this tradition is adults’ desire to warn kids of what they’ll look and feel like if they choose to make high fructose corn syrup candy the staple of their diets, instead of good wholesome fruits & veggies like pumpkins.
In all seriousness, our modern versions of Halloween and the Jack-o-Lantern are marvelous cultural mashups of “New World” and European folkloric traditions whose origins date back thousands of years.
Rather than go through all the historical details about those ancient traditions here, anyone interested in learning more about their origins should read more about Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival. You’ll also see origins of our modern Halloween tradition in the Catholic celebration known as All Saints Day.
The original jack-o-lanters weren’t made from pumpkins?
The American tradition of carving pumpkin Jack-O-Lanterns dates back to at least 1836, and was borrowed from the European tradition of carving jack-o-lanterns from large turnips. (Europe didn’t have pumpkins when the tradition started, because pumpkins are native to the Americas.)
In parts of Europe, there were folktales of a clever farmer named Jack whose favorite food was turnips. In one of the most popular stories about Jack, he managed to trick the devil into becoming a silver coin. Then Jack held the devil hostage in his wallet with a cross, rendering him powerless.
In exchange for Jack releasing him from his wallet, the devil promised Jack he wouldn’t take his soul. However, Jack may have been too clever for his own good…
He was supposedly too sinful throughout his life to be granted entrance into heaven, thus dooming him to a state of purgatory here on earth. Since the devil couldn’t take Jack’s soul, he spitefully threw Jack an eternal flame from hell. Jack then used the flame to light the inside of his favorite food, the turnip, where his soul would take up shelter during each fall harvest season.
For the rest of the year, Jack’s flame could be seen wandering through Europe’s marshes, bogs, and swamps. This folktale provided a much-needed explanation for the spooky blue orb-like flames that hover above these bodies of water as a result of ignited, “cold-burning” swamp gasses, aka “ignis fatuus.”
In other parts of Europe, people also used their turnip jack-o-lanterns to ward off evil spirits from entering their homes, since these spirits were said to be particularly active during the “dark half of the year.”
So, when you’re lighting your jack-o-lantern, make sure you say hello to ol’ Jack. Also, make sure that you save your pumpkin when the candle goes out. After all, pumpkins are one delicious, nutritious food that you don’t want to waste — especially if you got them from an organic farm or grew them organically yourself!
Amazing Pumpkin Facts & Figures
A native of North America, pumpkins are actually a winter squash in the family Cucurbita.
Pumpkins range in weight from a few pounds to massive “Atlantic Giant” varieties, which can easily top the scales at over 2,000 pounds.
Archaeologists excavating a tomb in central Mexico, unearthed the oldest known pumpkin seeds ever found, which date back 10,000 years!
Pumpkins are also one of the most versatile foods on the planet, They’re used in a huge variety of foods and drinks including:
- soups and stews,
- alcoholic beverages,
- coffee flavoring and more.
Pumpkins are big business, and they can be big hits in your garden too
The US now grows over 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins per year. 95% of those pumpkins are grown in Illinois.
85% of all pumpkins grown in the US are produced by Libby. Libby is a subsidiary of Nestlé, the massive Swiss-based company that is also the world’s largest food company by revenue.
Most people in the US with access to a lawn or a public shared garden can easily grow their own pumpkins from seed using organic methods. There are dozens of heirloom pumpkin varieties to choose from, each offering different sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors.
We’ve already made a bunch of new, delicious pumpkin recipes from our pumpkins’ flowers, leaves, seeds, and meat this season. The sweet, intense floral aroma and taste of our organic home-grown heirloom pumpkin puree is a night-and-day difference versus the store-bought canned pumpkin.
We love scooping out the pumpkin seeds and cooking them in our wok. Then we roast the pumpkin flesh skin-side-down in preparation for making it into puree for delicious meals throughout the year.
Maybe you want to learn how to give ol’ Jack’s soul a place to hide in a homegrown, heirloom pumpkin. Or maybe you want to learn how to eat every part of a pumpkin plant — flowers, leaves, seeds, and flesh.
Read Part 2 of our Incredible, Edible Pumpkin series to find out how to process and eat your incredible edible pumpkin!
More pumpkin articles you’ll love from Tyrant Farms:
- How to process and eat your incredible edible pumpkin (including jack-o-lanterns)
- Fall harvest coffee cake with pumpkins, apples, and walnuts
- Recipe: How to make pumpkin champagne
- Disappearing whole wheat spiced pumpkin pancakes
- Mom’s pumpkin chili with turkey and black beans