Pumpkin Patrol - Jack-O-Lantern History October 26 2009

Photo by Jason Tromm
Photo by Jason Tromm

Jack-o-lanterns are a fun fall tradition. Why not use this common October activity to help kids practice some skills in the classroom?

The History of the Jack-o-Lantern

The history of the jack-o-lantern is a bit dark. It’s based on an Irish legend about a character by the name of “Stingy Jack,” a man stuck between Heaven and Hell when he died.

Stingy Jack had an active and turbulent relationship with the spiritual realm before his death. Apparently afraid of spending eternity with the Devil, Stingy Jack tricked him into not taking his soul upon Jack's death. Jack convinced the Devil to climb a tree in order to pick a piece of fruit. Then, Stingy Jack carved crosses into the trunk of the tree, trapping the Devil in the branches. He would not free the Devil until he agreed not to take Jack’s soul.

The legend continues with Stingy Jack’s death and arrival at the Pearly Gates of Heaven where he was told that he would not be allowed to spend eternity there. The Devil, still angry about Stingy Jack’s trickery, would not allow him into Hell.

So Stingy Jack was on his own, with only a burning coal to light the night. He placed the coal in a carved out turnip, using it for a lantern. Because of this, the Irish referred to him as “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern.”

In order to keep Stingy Jack away from their homes, people of Ireland and then Scotland and England carved faces into potatoes, turnips or beets and displayed them outside their houses to scare Jack away. When people from these countries moved to the United States, they brought the tradition with them. Pumpkins, which originated in North America, provided a better carving surface for the Jack-o-Lanterns!

This legend doesn’t seem appropriate for younger children especially, but I think it would be interesting to explore the origins of pumpkin carving. The first activity below is to help your class process through why we carve pumpkins each October, and to then come up with a whole-class story or individual stories about why we have this tradition.

For older kids, however, exploring the legend genre and Stingy Jack would be quite interesting. I’ve included two lesson plans to help guide kids through creating their own legends about the origins of the Jack-o-Lantern. Before you get started with "Stingy Jack," consider checking out these American Myths and Legends with your class.

Jack-o-Lantern History for Younger Kids

Jack-o-Lantern History for Older Kids

A Glyph-o-Lantern

Each student carving a pumpkin might be fun, but it would also be messy. Plus, there are safety considerations when dealing with the sharp objects needed to carve a pumpkin well. So why not use  construction paper instead, and transform a regular jack-o-lantern into a puzzle!

Glyphs are simply symbols that stand for particular pieces of information, depending upon the symbols' colors or shapes. You create the legend, and your students create their jack-o-lanterns (or jack-o-glyphs?) according to their preferences. Here are some ideas:

Background Color (construction paper) - Brown = Go trick-or-treating on Halloween, Black = Do not go trick-or-treating on Halloween
Pumpkin Color – Yellow = Like scary costumes, Orange = Like funny costumes, Green = Like Both
Nose Shape – Triangle = Like chocolate candy, Circle = Like sour candy, Square = Like gummy candy, Rhombus = Like all candy
Nose Color – Purple = eats candy Halloween night, Blue = does not eat candy Halloween night

Other categories to consider are eye shape, eye color, smile or frown, and shape and number of teeth. Get your kids involved with determining the meaning of the different symbols!

Would you like to read more about glyphs? Here's an art lesson plan I wrote using glyphs at the beginning of the year!