A traditional carving used on or about Halloween. Jack-o'-lanterns are pumpkins which have been hollowed out, carved with a face (scary or happy), and set with a candle. Jack-o'-lanterns are typically put on front porches, such that trick-or-treaters or party guests can get a good look. At night, the candles are lit such that you can see the light flickering through the carvings. Ooh, spooky.

After Halloween is over, or late on the night of Halloween, the pumpkins are often smashed by high school kids at a loss for houses to egg. Otherwise, they rot into a puddle of black goo on the porch, and are later thrown out.

Jack-o'-lanterns have been a part of the All Hallow's Eve tradition for quite some time. Originally, they were carved from turnips (another key fall harvest item) and suspended from sticks, to be carried as turnip lanterns. These lights, plus the traditional costumes, were supposed to scare off demons and spirits, or just fool them into thinking the people were also spirits.

The legend of Jack and the lantern is Irish in origin. Apparently, a blacksmith named Jack tricked the devil into agreeing never to take his soul. When Jack died, years later, he was sent to hell as punishment for his stingy behavior on earth. But the devil could not take him in, due to their agreement. So Jack was forced to wander the earth with a lantern made of a turnip he had been eating and lit by a live coal the devil threw at him. However, I would guess that the tradition of carved turnips was practiced for a while before this legend came into common parlance--the story seems awfully Christian, but I would bet the tradition was initially pagan. Thus the legend (much like the Greek myths) would have been invented as a new explanation for the practice.


      ”Next, for about a half an hour, I whoops now and then; at last I hears the answer a long ways off, and tries to follow it, but I couldn't do it, and directly I judged I'd got into a nest of towheads, for I had little dim glimpses of them on both sides of me -- sometimes just a narrow channel between, and some that I couldn't see I knowed was there because I'd hear the wash of the current against the old dead brush and trash that hung over the banks. Well, I warn't long loosing the whoops down amongst the towheads; and I only tried to chase them a little while, anyway, because it was worse than chasing a Jack-o'-lantern. You never knowed a sound dodge around so, and swap places so quick and so much.”
In 1885 Mark Twain alluded to Jack-o'-lantern in his Adventures of Huck Finn as some sort of a spectral or supernatural event. Clearly he wasn’t describing carved pumpkins. What he was talking about is a phenomenon known technically as ignis fatuus or foolish fire. Perhaps better known as will-o'-the-wisps, you may have heard of them as those baffling lights that occur in marshlands. The lights are ignited swamp gases, such as methane emitting from the ground as vegetation decomposes under stagnant water and spontaneously ignite into an eerie blue flame skipping erratically across the surface of the water. Almost invisible by day, only those who spend evenings in torpid swamps can see this ghostly phenomenon. During the 14th century Jack was a very common nickname for John eventually becoming slang for “man” and is found in many common phrases from “Jack-of-all-trades” to “Jack-o'-lantern.” As a result sometime during the 17th century these will-o'-the-wisps had acquired the abbreviated name for Jack of the lantern.

Like many in the United States our family is a melting pot of traditions. Since we have strong Protestant and Irish Catholic roots we observe the American custom of dressing up and trick or treating as long as the costumes are moderate and within reason. Halloween is the slurring of the name applied to the evening of October 31st preceding the Christian feasts of Hallowmas, or All Saint’s Day, sometimes called Allhallows. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead revisited their mortal homes on that evening. After the Romans conquered Britain they added to the Halloween features of the Roman festival for the Roman goddess of the fruit trees Pomona. Which brings up an interesting point, pumpkins are a fruit!

Native to the western hemisphere pumpkins were entirely unheard of in Europe before Christopher Columbus. Native Americans called pumpkins "isquotersquash." Jacques Cartier the French explorer wrote down a few details in 1584 near the St. Lawrence region that he had found gros melons. Translated into English it becomes "ponpions," or pumpkins. Pumpkins have been grown in the Americas for thousands of years and like gourds and other squash belongs to the Cucurbitacae family, which also consists of cucumbers, gherkins, and melons.

The Jack-o'-lantern is said to have been the symbol of what was originally a spirit who had been refused entrance to both Heaven and Hell. The Irish story explains how the name for this lantern came to describe the ever-present Jack. One day he tricked the Devil up a tree trapping him there by carving out a cross in the trunk. The Devil sought revenge by raining down temptations on poor Jack bringing his life to ruins. When he died Jack was not allowed into Heaven because of all of his sins. Alas poor Jack, since the Devil wouldn't have him either, he was left to wander the Earth forever but not before begging the Devil for a small lump of coal from Hell itself to light his way and provide some warmth. He then carved a turnip into a lantern to carry it and shield it from the wind. Hence glimpsing a will-o'-the-wisp was an encounter with the unfortunate Jack on his ghostly and weary way.

A good number sources relate that the popular superstition summarized by chancel as Irish Catholic in origin. In Ireland, my grandparents explained, many would put great, carved turnips and rutabagas with candles in them in their window to scare off any spirits that may wander by on the eve of All Saint's Day. When the Irish immigrated to the America they brought Celtic and Christian folk traditions to America where pumpkins were more readily available, and the pumpkin were quickly substituted for the turnips when carving the Jack-o'-lantern.

This is probably how Jack-o'-lanterns were introduced as a part of Halloween centuries ago in the United States, but the Jack-o'-lantern is not nearly as old as Halloween and originally had nothing to do with the holiday. Today All Hallows Eve has become sort of a collective whistle in the dark to drown out the banshee's wail and set up perimeter defenses against goblins and the like. Hallowmas or All Saint’s Day is a holy day that has been celebrated since 835 in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches on November 1st to “honor of God and all his saints known and unknown.” It was Pope Gregory IV who officially authorized the custom and probably chose November 1st since it was church policy of the times to supplant pagan with Christian observances.

During the years leading up to the turn of the 20th century the festive customs of their traditions were incorporated into America's Halloween traditions, from the “will-o’- the wisp” to a "man with a lantern" and into the 19th century term meaning "hollowed pumpkin with light inside." yourdictionanry.com gives an excellent etymology of the word:

    “Jack-with-a-lantern originally …referred to night watchmen. Its structure is analogical with that of "will-o'-the-wisp", which originally meant only "man (named Will) with a wisp." A wisp was a whisk, a bundle of broomstraw sometimes used as a torch in days gone by. "Will-o'-the-wisp" and "jack-o'-lantern" later were used to refer to a then scary phenomenon which the Romans called ignis fatuus "crazy fire," a pale mysterious fire occasionally seen over marshy areas (probably swamp gases burning). Will-o'-the-wisp was presumed to be a sprite carrying a wisp of a torch across the swamps. Jack-o'-lantern was assumed to be a man with a lantern.

Halloween itself is a very, very old holiday. The ancient pagan traditions, including "trick or treating" and turnip lanterns have been retained and integrated into the new holiday. From the 14th century "will-o'-the-wisps to the 17th century Huck Finn's Jack-o’-lantern’s. Both can be seen but never caught. There in lies the tale of the Devil himself chasing after the one thing he can never have, Jack’s soul. It’s no small wonder that with such a frightening legend, that Jack-o'-lanterns sitting in the front porch to greet trick or treaters became a fixture of Halloween.


The History of Carving Pumpkins:

Halloween article -- part 2, jack o' lantern :


Online Etymology Dictionary:

Public domain text of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn taken from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; CHAPTER XV. Page 2:
www.pagebypagebooks.com/Mark_Twain/Adventures_of_Huckleberry_Finn/ CHAPTER_XV_p2.html


The Word Detective:

Words to the Wise :

Jack"-o'-lan`tern (?), n.

See Jack-with-a-lantern, under 2d Jack.


© Webster 1913

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