Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within! (25-28)
—from “The Pumpkin” by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1844
People living in the hollers are accustomed to darkness. Even in daytime, the backroads are shadowed for miles by trees. Generally speaking, paths and roads are not lit by streetlights at night, and vision depth is about four fingers from the nose. Then come the sounds. Wind shrills through shabby window panes, and that one scraggly limb sways and screeches back and forth across the glass. Wild dogs bay in the night, their howls becoming louder and closer with each howl. A ramshackle shed’s door slams shut again and again. Every night is delightfully creepy in the mountains. Halloween only intensifies the scare levels. Add a little ghost story or three, and a body is in for a spooky, spine-chilling evening.
Back in the day, one particular Halloween custom illuminated the night and heightened the creepy factor: Jack-O’-lanterns. These “guardians” glowed all across the mountains, their ghoulish faces taunting with toothless smirks and silent laughter. Where did this custom originate? Who in the world came up with gutting a pumpkin, carving a face, and shoving a candle in the hollow? I’ll attempt to “pare” it down.
The custom began in Northern Europe during the autumn season. In Ireland and Scotland, people etched faces into root vegetables like turnips and beets. Our motherland ancestors brought this tradition with them to America. Still, why did they do so? One theory is that this all began as a childish nighttime prank.
Before Halloween became a thing, some crafty youngsters were likely bored, cut out faces in pumpkins, and stuck a candle inside. Once lit, children ran around the neighborhoods and scared the bejesus out of people. The game was called the “carved pumpkin trick”1)“The Real Reason People Carve Jack-O’-Lanterns for Halloween” by Rachel E. Greenspan, TIME Oct. 26, 2018. and was so popular that “how-to articles [were] printed in magazines as early as 1842.”2)“The Real Reason People Carve Jack-O’-Lanterns for Halloween” by Rachel E. Greenspan, TIME Oct. 26, 2018.
So, from where did the term Jack-o’-lantern derive? The prominent theory is that it came from an old Irish folktale, recorded as far back as the mid-1500s, about a man named “Stingy Jack.”3)Jack was also known as “Jack the Smith,” “Drunk Jack,” “Flakey Jack,” and just about any kind of Jack out there with a vice or odd trait. Several slightly different versions exist, but the gist is the same. Take a look at the following version from History.com:
According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.”
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as ‘Jack of the Lantern,’ and then, simply ‘Jack O’Lantern.’
Irish children celebrated Stingy Jack’s trickster ability by carving faces into root vegetables and popping in a piece of smoldering coal. The connection between Jack’s myth and the carved, lit pumpkin was made in America after the 19th century.
Another theory about the term Jack-o’-lantern has something to do with the glow that lights up the goul’s face. Some have associated the word with the “will-o’-the-wisp,” a strange, ethereal light that glows within dark wooded areas or heavily mired swamps. The light is called ignis fatuus, meaning “foolish fire” or “false fire,” and is described as “flame-like.” The phenomenon occurs when gases rise from decomposing plants. The firelight was once believed to be a mythical Siren that would “lead people astray or lure them with its evil ways.”4)“How Did the Jack-O’-Lantern Become a Scary Halloween Staple? Learn the History Behind These Carved Pumpkins: excerpt From the Book Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon” by Parade August 17, 2023. Book by Cindy Ott.
People associated the Wisp’s natural phenomenon with Jack’s glowing lantern, so the two were merged into one. One factor is still in question: why carve a face? Perhaps European ancestors made the connection long ago.
Yet another theory states that Jack-o’-lantern was the name given in the 1600s to “lantern-carrying watchmen in England . . .” In those days, the name Jack was an identifier for a man whose real name was unknown, much like our “average Joe.” So, a night watchman was called a “Jack with the lantern.” Two hundred years later, the name became associated with ‘a carved pumpkin used as a lantern.’5)“The History of ‘Jack-O’-Lantern’” by Merriam-Webster
Another theory brings in the Celts and Paganism. Merriam Webster explains the association this way:
. . . One theory begins by associating the illumination of a hollowed-out pumpkin with a Celtic pagan practice in which turnips or other root vegetables were hollowed out, carved with grotesque faces, and then illuminated by coal, wooden embers, or candles as a way to ward off evil spirits.
Ireland and Scotland clung to Gaelic beliefs and celebrations for centuries. People carved root vegetables and added “coals or candles to create makeshift lanterns . . .”6)“The Jack-O-Lantern’s Origins” by Andrew Huntley Carnegie Museum of Natural History n.d. lighting the way for people celebrating.
Whatever the origin, Jack-o’-lanterns have been a tradition in this country for over 200 years and centuries before that in our motherlands. So, remember good ole Jack on this Halloween night. And, if you come upon a lighted pumpkin with a carved face, just take a minute and look. Fix your eyes for a while, deep and hard. You might just see Jack mouth the words: Happy Halloween!
- “The Real Reason People Carve Jack-O’-Lanterns for Halloween” by Rachel E. Greenspan, TIME Oct. 26, 2018
- “How Jack O’Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth” by History.com Editors. History October 25, 2019
- “Pumpkin Carving: The History of the Jack-O’-Lantern” by Jan Brinn Michigan State University MSU Extension, October 8, 2015
- “How Did the Jack-O’-Lantern Become a Scary Halloween Staple? Learn the History Behind These Carved Pumpkins“: excerpt from the Book Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon” by Cindy Ott, Parade August 17, 2023
- “The History of ‘Jack-O’-Lantern’” by Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- “The Jack-O-Lantern’s Origins” by Andrew Huntley Carnegie Museum of Natural History n.d.
Featured image by M_W from Pixabay
|↑1, ↑2||“The Real Reason People Carve Jack-O’-Lanterns for Halloween” by Rachel E. Greenspan, TIME Oct. 26, 2018.|
|↑3||Jack was also known as “Jack the Smith,” “Drunk Jack,” “Flakey Jack,” and just about any kind of Jack out there with a vice or odd trait.|
|↑4||“How Did the Jack-O’-Lantern Become a Scary Halloween Staple? Learn the History Behind These Carved Pumpkins: excerpt From the Book Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon” by Parade August 17, 2023. Book by Cindy Ott.|
|↑5||“The History of ‘Jack-O’-Lantern’” by Merriam-Webster|
|↑6||“The Jack-O-Lantern’s Origins” by Andrew Huntley Carnegie Museum of Natural History n.d.|