Why Are Pumpkins Used at Halloween? Plus Some of the Best Free Pumpkin Carving Stencils Available
Updated: Oct 12, 2022
It's October, which can mean only one thing - Halloween is almost upon us! At this time of year, we're always being asked about pumpkins:
Why are pumpkins carved for Halloween?
What do pumpkins have to do with Halloween?
Where did Halloween pumpkins come from?
All great questions and, fortunately, they all have very interesting answers! Pumpkin carving is a true Folk Art with centuries of fascinating history, so let's dive in!
The History of Halloween Traditions
It all started a long time ago, seemingly in Europe and certainly England, Ireland and Scotland are the likeliest sources of the migration of this tradition to the USA, and, funnily enough, many years later from America back to the UK and Europe!
You see, there's a common misconception that pumpkin carving and the other well-known Halloween activity of trick-or-treating are American traditions which have recently (since the 1980s) been imported to the UK and Europe, and though Americans have certainly seized on these traditions, developed and popularised them through films, TV shows, pop music and more, the origins of these traditions are most definitely European.
The idea of using a roughly human head-shaped object to create a ghoulish human effigy goes back to the Celtic tribes of Europe, who carved scary faces into vegetables to ward off the evil spirits that were said to mingle with the living on 31st October - AKA All Hallow's Eve.
Root vegetables also made sense to the poor people of Europe - proper lanterns, which were generally made of metal, were expensive and most people couldn't afford them. So taking a pumpkin or similar root vegetable, hollowing it out and using it as a lantern made perfect financial sense for people who were lacking in any kind of, er... finances.
These gruesome effigies of the past were also used to scare nasty neighbours and made great reminders of death - something which our rather dour ancestors seemed to be grimly obsessed with.
This tradition, again originating in Europe but gaining huge traction in the USA then being exported to the world but with a modern twist, was an extension of pumpkin carving, being another way to ward off the spirits of the dead who were said to mingle with the living on All Hallow's Eve.
Seasonal Considerations of Halloween and Pumpkin Carving
In England, Ireland and Scotland, the traditional vegetable used for carving spooky faces into was actually the turnip! At one time, turnips were a staple food of what are now the British Isles and due to harvest time being Autumn in that part of the world, turnips, as well as many other food stuffs, were in plentiful supply around the end of October. Autumn in the UK is often described as the 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness', which is taken from the poem entitled To Autumn by the poet John Keats. It's a pretty good way to describe the UK in the month of October!
How did Pumpkin Carving Become Popular in the USA?
One word, which pretty much sums up American history in general: Immigration.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, a lot of Irish people emigrated to America. This has already been touched on in a lot of great film, TV works and literature, from Martin Scorsese's movie Gangs of New York, to the much more recent Neil Gaiman-penned Amazon series American Gods.
The Irish brought to the USA with them a rich tradition of folklore and superstitious beliefs, including the Halloween tradition of carving turnips into effigies of human heads.
These creations were often referred to as Punkies and Jack O'Lanterns, as they were reminiscent of the supposed spooky lights that inhabited the UK's bogs and marshes and were believed to be evil spirits! If you've never heard of the rumours of such spirits, check out the classic UK-made Hammer Film Captain Clegg, whose protagonist traded on the fears and superstitions of supposed phantoms inhabiting the Romney Marshes as a smokescreen for his dastardly smuggling operations!
The name Jack O'Lantern derives from the folklore character Stingy Jack, a no-good drunk who tricked the devil, which ultimately led to him not being allowed into either Heaven or Hell and having to wander between the two realms for eternity, with only a lantern to light his way. Very spooky - poor Jack! More on this story can be found on the Reader's Digest site.
Turnips to Pumpkins for Halloween
Once in the USA, Irish immigrants found that pumpkins were in much more plentiful supply than turnips. They were easier to carve and actually tasted better when cooked and so, voila! Pumpkin carving for Halloween had arrived in America!
We hope that's helped explain the wonderful Folk Art tradition of pumpkin carving!
Carrying on the Halloween theme, if you want to see some of the best horror-themed fine art out there, take a look at our related blog post 5 Spooky Halloween Paintings to Scare You Silly
A Resource List of Some Fantastic Pumpkin Stencils
If you're inspired to try your had at pumpkin carving for Halloween 2022, we've put together a list of some of the best free templates and stencils available on the web to get you inspired!
Are you hungry for more Halloween goodness? Then check out our article on spooky paintings for Halloween and our list of some of the best kids' books for Halloween!