A jack-o’-lantern is a carved pumpkin, or turnip, associated chiefly with the holiday of Halloween, and was named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern. In a jack-o’-lantern, the top is cut off to form a lid, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved out of the pumpkin’s rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source is placed within before the lid is closed. This is traditionally a flame or electric candle, though pumpkin lights featuring various colors and flickering effects are also marketed specifically for this purpose. It is common to see jack-o’-lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations during Halloween.
The term jack-o’-lantern is in origin a term for the visual phenomenon ignis fatuus (lit., “foolish fire”) known as a will-o’-the-wisp in English folklore. Used especially in East Anglia, its earliest known use dates to the 1660s. The term “will-o’-the-wisp” uses “wisp” (a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch) and the proper name “Will”: thus, “Will-of-the-torch.” The term jack-o’-lantern is of the same construction: “Jack of [the] lantern.” See Origin: Folklore below.
The origin of Jack o’ Lantern carving is uncertain. The carving of vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world, with gourds being the earliest plant species domesticated by humans c. 10,000 years ago, primarily for their carving potential. Gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago, with the Māori word for a gourd also used to describe a lampshade. There is a common belief that the custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns at Hallowe’en originated in Ireland, where turnips, mangelwurzel or beets were supposedly used. According to historian Ronald Hutton, in the 19th century, Hallowe’en guisers in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands commonly used jack-o’-lanterns made from turnips and mangelwurzels. They were “often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins”. In these areas, 31 October–1 November was known as Samhain and it was seen as a time when spirits or fairies were particularly active. Hutton says that they were also used at Hallowe’en in Somerset (see Punkie Night) during the 19th century. Christopher Hill also writes that “jack-o’-lanterns were carved out of turnips or squashes and were literally used as lanterns to guide guisers on All Hallows’ Eve.” Some claim that the Jack-o’-lanterns originated with All Saints’ Day (1 November)/All Souls’ Day (2 November) and represented Christian souls in purgatory. Bettina Arnold writes that they were sometimes set on windowsills to keep the harmful spirits out of one’s home. An 1834 account of a Halloween night at a house in Ireland makes no mention of any jack-o’-lantern or carved vegetables acting as lanterns, nor does Robert Burns mention them in his famous poem “Halloween”. Thomas Johnson Westropp does not mention them in Folklore of Clare (1910) and an “internationally accepted authority on Irish folk tradition”, Seán Ó Súilleabháin, does not mention them in Irish Folk Custom and Belief (1967). So despite the commonly held belief that the carving of the Jack-O’-Lantern was an ancient Irish custom, no scholarly research into Irish mythology and customs includes a contemporary reference to such a practice being present during Samhain.
There is however evidence that turnips were used to carve what was called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern” in Worcestershire, England at the end of the 18th century. The folklorist Jabez Allies recalls how
“In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a ” Hoberdy’s Lantern,” by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style ; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night.”
In literature and popular culture
The application of the term to carved pumpkins in American English is first attested in 1834. The carved pumpkin lantern association with Hallowe’en is recorded in 1866 in the U.S. In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Hallowe’en. In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o’-lantern as part of the festivities. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born in Massachusetts in 1807, wrote “The Pumpkin” (1850):
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!
Cornish folklorist Dr. Thomas Quiller Couch (d. 1884) recorded the use of the term in a rhyme used in Polperro, Cornwall, in conjunction with Joan the Wad, the Cornish version of Will-o’-the-wisp. The people of Polperro regarded them both as pixies. The rhyme goes:
Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather’s bad.
The story of the Jack-O’-lantern comes in many variants and is similar to the story of Will-o’-the-wisp retold in different forms across Western Europe, with variations being present in the folklore of Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Italy and Spain. An old Irish folk tale from the mid-19th Century tells of Stingy Jack, a lazy yet shrewd blacksmith who uses a cross to trap Satan. One story says that Jack tricked Satan into climbing an apple tree, and once he was up there Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark, so that Satan couldn’t get down. Another tale says that Jack put a key in Satan’s pocket while he was suspended upside-down.
Another version of the story says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met Satan, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting Satan with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told Satan to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (Satan could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin (Satan) disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it. The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack’s wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped.
In both folktales, Jack only lets Satan go when he agrees never to take his soul. After a while the thief died, as all living things do. Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, Satan had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from hell as well. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and Satan mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of Hades, that would never burn out. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which were his favorite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern”, or Jack-o’-lantern.
Jack-o-lanterns were also a way of protecting your home against the Undead. Superstitious people used them specifically to ward away vampires. They thought this because it was said that the Jack-o-lantern’s light was a way of identifying vampires and, once their identity was known, they would give up their hunt for you.
Sections of the pumpkin are cut out to make holes, often depicting a face, which may be either cheerful, scary, or comical. More complex carvings are becoming more commonly seen. Popular figures, symbols, and logos are some that can now be seen used on pumpkins. A variety of tools can be used to carve and hollow out the gourd, ranging from simple knives and spoons to specialized instruments, typically sold in holiday sections of North American grocery stores. Printed stencils can be used as a guide for increasingly complex designs. After carving, a light source (traditionally a candle) is placed inside the pumpkin and the top is put back into place. The light is normally inserted to illuminate the design from the inside and add an extra measure of spookiness. Sometimes a chimney is carved, too. It is possible to create surprisingly artistic designs, be they simple or intricate in nature.
For a long time, Keene, New Hampshire held the world record for most jack-o’-lanterns carved and lit in one place. The Life is good company teamed up with Camp Sunshine, a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, to break the record. A record was set on October 21, 2006 when 30,128 jack-o’-lanterns were simultaneously lit on Boston Common. Highwood, Illinois tried to set the record on October 31, 2011 with an unofficial count of 30,919, but did not follow the Guinness regulations so the record did not count. Guinness still holds Boston as the world record holder.
The world’s largest jack-o’-lantern was carved from the then-world’s-largest pumpkin on October 31, 2005 in Northern Cambria, Pennsylvania, United States by Scott Cully. The pumpkin was grown by Larry Checkon and weighed 1,469 lb (666.33 kg) on October 1, 2005 at the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Association Weigh-off.