The Strange History of the Jack-o'-Lantern

Posted on 28th October 2016

Halloween is nearly here. This weekend, millions of pumpkins will be carved into all kinds of ghoulish designs to be used as jack-o’-lanterns. As they pop up in doorways across Kensington, we take a look at the history behind this unusual tradition.

It’s thought that the tradition of the jack-o’-lantern began in Ireland. Their earliest recorded use was in the 1600s, but they probably go back much further. The Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain on the night of the 31st October. Samhain marked the beginning of winter, and was seen as a time when the souls of the dead and supernatural creatures roamed the earth. All kinds of root vegetables were carved into grotesque faces and lit up with candles as a way of guarding homes and villages against evil spirits.

As Pagan beliefs were replaced with Christianity, the festival and the jack-o’-lantern remained – but the meaning changed. The jack-o’-lantern was linked to a folk tale about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil into not taking him to Hell when he died. As Stingy Jack was a sinner and God would not allow him into Heaven, he was forced to roam the earth, with only a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. The ghostly figure became known as “jack of the lantern”, and people made their own versions of his lantern to frighten him and other evil spirits away.

Irish and English colonists took this tradition with them when they settled in North America in the mid-1800s. They soon found that pumpkins, which are native to America and come into season around October, were perfect for jack-o-lanterns. Although the festival of Halloween fell out of popularity in Britain, it really took off in the US. By the start of the 20th Century, pumpkin carving, parties and costumes were the norm.

In the past ten years, Halloween has been experiencing something of a revival in Britain, brought about by the popularity of the festival with our American cousins. Pumpkins have also come across the pond: it turns out they grow very well in our climate, bringing a bumper crop every year. But although pumpkin pie is a big part of Thanksgiving, we Brits seem to have forgotten that pumpkins are much more than Halloween decorations: they are delicious to eat. Pumpkin seeds are a delicious topping for cakes and make a nutritional snack, while the flesh of the squash itself is fantastic in soups and stews, mashed up, or roasted. 

At Chakra, we haven’t forgotten this eccentric winter squash. It features in our autumn menu, as the perfect accompaniment to our Pheasant Tikka – an incredible mix of autumn ingredients. Who not come in and try it? Make a reservation online or call 020 7229 2115.

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