Most of us know the term “Jack o’ Lantern” to refer to a pumpkin that’s carved with a face, but did you ever wonder where pumpkin carving comes from? We wear jewelry, clothing, and hair ornaments printed with this popular image, and carry around candy baskets modeled from its shape. Although carving pumpkins is distinctly American, the concept of Jack o’ Lanterns finds it origin in our Northern European roots.
In parts of the UK (Ireland and Scotland in particular), the carving of gourds and root vegetables dates back to the 1800s. Although there’s no evidence that these carvings were associated with the celebration of any holiday that coincides with Halloween, they were known to be placed upon the window ledge, hedge, or doorstep, much the way we decorate for Halloween today. Originally many of those used as actual lanterns were carved from turnips, mangold, or beets, rather than pumpkin or squash.
The name of “Jack o’ Lantern” actually comes from English folklore, and is a less traditional variation of the moniker “Will o’ the Wisp,” Will being short for the common name William. The concept of trick or treating comes from the UK as well, and is a modern form of the traditional Scottish “guising.” As early as the late 1800s in Scotland, the children of every village would go around in costume, asking for goodies for their Halloween party. Their treats would sometimes include sweets and chocolate, but were often in the form of candied fruits, tiny tea cakes, or roasted nuts. The concept of begging leading up to All Souls Day can be traced even further back into the 1500s.
Today’s current customs were molded by America, with the actual phrase “trick or treat” originating here in the late 1930s. It wasn’t until several decades afterward that other countries began to adopt the chant. Even our modern plastic carved-pumpkin baskets remain primarily a US custom, evolving from the days when actual Jack o’ Lanterns were carried to light the way for roving bands of trick or treaters. Like most such things our myriad of Halloween traditions are an eagerly welded conglomerate, composed of a host of older, more diverse communal practices. But for now it’s safe to say, that they’re likely to continue, because Halloween is simply too bloody fun.