If you are not from the British Isles, you won't believe where your hollowed out pumpkin comes from!
In Ireland and Scotland hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside, became a very popular Halloween decoration a few hundred years ago. Baldrick would have met his dream! (Fans of "Blackadder" will recognize this!) The English used beets (which they call "beetroots"). Talk about doing things the hard way!
Tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack and other malevolent spirits on Halloween, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead. Irish families who emigrated to America brought the tradition with them, but they replaced the turnips with pumpkins, which, native to the new world, were plentiful. It didn't hurt that they are a lot easier to carve than turnips. Have you ever tried to hollow out a turnip? People began to carve frightening faces and other designs into their jack-o'-lanterns.
The practice of carving turnips began with an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack.", a famous cheapskate who, on several occasions, avoided losing his soul to the devil by tricking him (often on All Hallows' Eve). In one story, he convinced Satan to climb up a tree for some apples, and then cut crosses all around the trunk so the devil couldn't climb down. The devil promised to leave Jack alone forever, if he would only let him out of the tree. In another story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Of course, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so that Jack pay for their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money! He 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, again with the same promise not to take his soul.
When Jack eventually died, he was turned away from Heaven, due to his life of sin. But, in keeping with their agreement, the Devil wouldn't take Jack, either. He was cursed to travel forever as a spirit in limbo. As Jack left the gates of Hell, the Devil threw him a hot ember to light the way in the dark. Jack placed the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, and wandered off into the world. According to the Irish legend, you might see Jack's spirit on All Hallows' Eve, still carrying his turnip lantern through the darkness.
The Irish began to refer to this eerie figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, just "Jack O'Lantern." Click here for a web page that has the complete Stingy Jack story!
Another legend tells of a different version of Jack's story.
Long ago there lived a nasty, quick-tempered little drunk named Jack. After years of drinking, fighting, and all-around bad behavior, Jack stumbled into a pub on All Hallows' Eve. He proceeded to get "in his cups," so much so that he was actually facing death. As his life was slipping away, the devil appeared to claim his soul. True to his nature, Jack begged for one more drink before he was taken to hell. The devil agreed and Jack ordered a pint of beer. And wouldn't you know it, Jack didn't have the money to pay for his final drink. Here's where things get a little odd. Jack asked if the devil would transform himself into a sixpence piece to pay for the drink. And the devil agreed. (How this guy became the ruler of hell is beyond me.) The devil turned into the sixpence and Jack shoved the coin into his wallet, which had on it the sign of cross. The power of the cross trapped the poor devil.
The devil demanded Jack release him. Jack agreed, with the condition that the devil leave him be for a year. For a while, Jack was a better man, a man of moderation and kindness. But soon he was back in the pubs, drinking, fighting, and being generally unpleasant.
After a year had passed, the devil returned for Jack's soul. And get this: Jack asked the devil to climb up an apple tree and get him an apple for the trip to hell. When that gullible old devil agreed and climbed up the tree, Jack carved the sign of the cross into the trunk and trapped the devil once again. Jack released him, on the condition that the devil never bother him again.
Eventually, Jack died. When he arrived at the gates of heaven, he was refused entry due to his mean-spirited nature. He then tried to find a home in hell, but the devil, still angry with Jack, wouldn't let him in. So Jack was forced to wander. The devil threw a burning coal to him, so he could light his way through limbo. Jack took the coal, put it in a hollowed-out turnip, and spent eternity looking for a home in the darkness.
For directions on how to carve your pumpkin, click here for Pumpkin Carving 101