We all know jack-o-lanterns. However, in the early 1500s, the term ‘jack-of-the-lantern’ was applied to people, not pumpkins. It originally meant ‘a man with a lantern’ or a night watchman. In its earliest recordings, the term was used to encompass the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes. These ghostly lights are caused by nothing more than the ignition of natural gases created by decomposing plant matter. However, for centuries before the scientific explanation was known, ancient people made up stories to explain these jack-o-lanterns, hinkypunks, corpse candles, will-o-the-wisps, fairy lights, and fool’s fires.
One of the oldest legends of the lights can be traced to Ireland. Most of the myths revolve around a character named ‘Stingy Jack.’ As the legend goes, Stingy Jack was a blacksmith who fancied drinking above all else, but hated to pay his tab. He became so good at avoiding his bill that he even bamboozled the Devil.
The tale starts with Jack and the Devil sharing drinks. When the time came to pay, neither wanted to do so. Instead, Jack asked the Devil to turn into a coin that they could use to pay the bill. Presumably, the Devil would then turn back into himself and leave the bill unpaid. However, once the Devil changed form, Jack put the coin into his pocket next to a crucifix which prevented the Devil from changing back. Jack didn’t remove the cross until the Devil agreed to two stipulations—not to take revenge on Jack and not to take his soul to Hell.
As it were, when Stingy Jack died, he wasn’t welcomed into Heaven either and the Devil kept his word. He turned Jack away from the gates of Hell with only a single burning coal to light his way. Jack couldn’t carry the coal in his hands so he hollowed out his favorite food—a turnip—and set the coal inside it. And so, Jack’s wayward soul wandered the swamps and bogs in search of rest with his makeshift lantern. People called the lights jack-o-lantern.
And so, it became tradition in the British Isles to carve vegetable lanterns out of turnips, potatoes, and beets. When the legend immigrated with the Irish to the New World, the tale found a new crop. In America, pumpkins were readily available and easy to carve. Over time, people seeking a thrill began to carve faces in the pumpkins with the hope of achieving the look of a disembodied head. By the mid-1800s, the name jack-o-lantern had stuck.
By the 19th century, jack-o-lanterns went from a legendary trick to a staple of Halloween décor. Some could say that this ends Stingy Jack’s time of wandering as he has found his place darkening the stoops and windowsills of our homes.