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There is an often-repeated 'fact' that although the pumpkin is an American plant, the Jack-o-Lantern tradition is an older Irish tradition (e.g., in today's Washington Post) in which turnips were carved rather than pumpkins.

I was surprised that the Wikipedia article seems to treat this as a popular myth! While it recognizes that there are old reports (and museum specimens) of carved turnips (mid 1800s), it seems that there is even older evidence of carven pumpkins in the Americas (early 1800s, cf. Legend of Sleepy Hollow).

These are relatively recent dates and it seems like there should be lots of written records! So is the Halloween tradition of carving a face into a vegetable and illuminating it from within by a candle something that went from Ireland to America, or America to Ireland?

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    Note that the Legend of Sleepy Hollow was actually written in England and known to be inspired by Germanic folklore. I would hesitate to count a fictional tale as evidence of real life practices, too. – Semaphore Oct 31 '14 at 17:05
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    I do know of one instance where the opposite happened. Oaxaca city has a radish-carving tradition on Christmas Eve (The Night of the Radishes), even though radishes were initially brought to Mexico from Spain. – T.E.D. Oct 31 '14 at 17:08
  • @Semaphore - Just to clarify, the author (Washington Irving) was physically in England, and trying to pay the bills with English readers, but he was born and raised American. So he wasn't exactly unfamiliar with the country either. – T.E.D. Oct 31 '14 at 18:03
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What I'm seeing there for good attestations are the following:

  • In Irish folklore, a Jack-o'-lantern appears to have been the same as what was called a will-o'-the-wisp in English folklore. In other words, ignited swamp gas visible at night, with lots of creative folklore built up around it. This is attested to as known folklore before we know of the term being applied to man-made objects.
  • There was an existing pranking tradition among English peasants of making lanterns out of turnips on full moons (Halloween being one) in order to scare people. However, they reportedly called them "Hobany's Lantern".
  • The earliest attestations of the term being used for carved pumpkins are all from North America. Of course this shouldn't be too shocking, as North America is where pumpkins are native plants.

So it looks like the modern Jack-o'-lantern was a minor evolution from multiple very similar folk traditions already existing in the British Isles. The final evolution probably happened in North America, where all these traditions had a chance to intermix among the common settlers, along with a conveniently large native gourd. However, it didn't take very long for the entire activity (pumpkins excluded due to lack of availability) to be attested in the Scottish Highlands on Halloween, so the exact location can't be pinned with any certainty.

  • A very nice answer. The Jabez Allies book looks like it definitively pushes the carving <1800, and incidentally is a wonderfully intriguing book! – Oreotrephes Oct 31 '14 at 19:46
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    @Oreotrephes - Does it? I didn't see anything about gourd carving in there; just the term being applied to the natural swamp gas phenomenon. – T.E.D. Oct 31 '14 at 21:01
  • I mean just the carving – the page you linked to where he describes carving turnip lanterns in his "youth" which must have been before the turn of the century. As you say in you answer, it's neat that he clearly doesn't connect those to the term 'jack-o-lantern' which he talks about on the next page or to Halloween bonfire traditions on p. 192 – Oreotrephes Nov 1 '14 at 23:11

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