This isn’t a ghost story, but rather a celebration of the arrival of fall and the anticipation of Halloween. Jack O’ Lanterns have been an icon of the season for a long time and push the sale of a lot of pumpkins. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 1 billion pounds of pumpkins were harvested in 2020 from California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia. If you are a fan of pumpkin pie, chances are you ate a pumpkin from Illinois. According to the data, almost 80 percent of the pumpkins harvested in Illinois were turned into pie filling or some other processing use.
When I was younger, carving a pumpkin was always something we did in late October. We would display them proudly and then watch them wither away as Halloween came and went then we would throw the seeds over the fence and come back the next year to see if any new pumpkins had grown from the seeds.
While there isn’t an exact timeline, the concept of the jack-o’-lantern dates back thousands of years to some northern European Celtic cultures and the festival of Samhain. Historically, Samhain is celebrated on November 1st, but on Samhain Eve, October 31st, people would wear costumes and carve faces into potatoes, turnips, and other root vegetables to scare away the restless spirits of the dead.
The jack-o’-lantern also has a practical origin. According to EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin, the carved vegetables were used as a cheaper alternative to a metal lantern and the faces were added to allow the light to shine through the holes. Below is an example of a carved turnip lantern known as the “Ghost Turnip” from the early 1900s that calls the National Museum of Ireland home. Honestly, I’m glad we use pumpkins now because this thing is teriffying.
By the middle of the 19th century, jack o’ lanterns had made their way to the United States, showing up in short stories and newspapers. In their book “Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon” Cindy Ott shares the image below that appeared in the 1867 issue of Harper’s Weekly. This image is believed to be the first image of a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern.
As more people in the United States started to celebrate Halloween in the late 1800s, the jack-o’-lantern really started to become the holiday icon it is today. Sometimes so spectacular, they would show up in the newspaper – like this clipping from the Atlanta Constitution from 1892 that describes the jack-o’-lanterns at a party held by the Mayor.
In Kentucky, there are two pumpkin-themed events I recommend you check out during the month of October. The first in the Jack O’ Lantern Spectacular in Iroquois Park in Louisville. I have lived in Louisville for a little more than 6 years, and I have been to the Jack O’ Lantern Spectacular for 5 of those years. The Spectacular features more than 5,000 carved pumpkins with just about anything you could think of. Characters from movies, video games, books, and more line the trails. I wish I could describe it better, but it really does have to be experienced. The Jack O’ Lantern Spectacular runs through October 31st and it’s all for a good cause. Money from the tickets supports the Parks Alliance of Louisville and other community projects in Louisville’s 120 public parks and community centers. You can get tickets to the event HERE. I would recommend you get them early – because it does sell out, especially on the weekends.
The other pumpkin-centric event you have to see is the PumpkinMania Festival at Transylvania University in Lexington.
If you are from Lexington, chances are you have seen this display on the steps of the Old Morrison administration building off Third street. While tickets to actually carve a pumpkin to be part of the display are sold out, the more than 500 jack-o’-lanterns will be lit each night from October 23rd through the 27th. After that, the pumpkins will be collected by local farmers and used to feed farm animals. You can get more information about PumpkinMania HERE.