A jack-o'-lantern (sometimes also spelled Jack O'Lantern)
is typically a carved pumpkin. It is associated chiefly with the holiday Halloween, and was named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called ignis fatuus or jack-o'-lantern. In a jack-o'-lantern, typically the top is cut off, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved onto the outside surface, and the lid replaced. At night a light (commonly a candle) is placed inside to illuminate the effect. The term is not particularly common outside North America, although the practice of carving lanterns for Halloween is.
Sections of the pumpkin are cut out to make a design, often depicting a face. A variety of tools may be used to carve and hollow out the gourd, ranging from simple knives and spoons to specialized instruments, typically sold in holiday sections of grocery stores. Printed stencils can be used as a guide for increasingly complex designs. It is possible to create surprisingly artistic
designs, be they simple or intricate in nature. After carving, a light source (traditionally a candle, sometimes an electric light) is placed inside the pumpkin and the top is put back into place. The light illuminates the design from the inside. Sometimes a chimney is carved in. But towards the end of the 20th century, artists began expressing every kind of idea they could imagine on pumpkins. Today, it is common to see portraits of political candidates, celebrities and cartoon characters.
North American tradition
Throughout Ireland and Britain, there is a long tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, particularly the turnip, mangelwurzel, or swede. But not until 1837 does jack-o'-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern, and the carved lantern does not become associated specifically with Halloween until 1866. Significantly, both occurred not in Ireland or Britain, but in North America. Historian David J. Skal writes,
- Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chronicles of British holidays and folk customs make any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween. Neither do any of the standard works of the early twentieth century.
In America, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born in 1807, wrote in "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!
An old Irish folk tale tells of Jack, a lazy yet shrewd farmer who uses a cross
to trap the Devil
. One story says that Jack tricked the Devil 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 the Devil couldn't get down. Another myth says that Jack put a key in the Devil's pocket while he was suspended upside-down.
Another version of the myth says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met the Devil, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (the Devil could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin/Devil 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 myths, Jack only lets the Devil 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, the Devil 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 the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember that would never burn out from the flames of hell. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which was his favourite 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.
There are variations on the legend:
- Some versions include a "wise and good man", or even God helping Jack to prevail over the Devil.
- There are different versions of Jack's bargain with the Devil. Some variations say the deal was only temporary but the Devil, embarrassed and vengeful, refuses Jack entry to hell after Jack dies.
- Jack is considered a greedy man and is not allowed into either heaven or hell, without any mention of the Devil.
- In some variations, God gives Jack the turnip
Despite the colourful legends, the term jack-o'-lantern originally meant a night watchman, or man with a lantern, with the earliest known use in the mid-17th century; and later, meaning an ignis fatuus or will-o'-the-wisp. In Labrador and Newfoundland, both names "Jacky Lantern" and "Jack the Lantern" refer to the will-o'-the-wisp concept rather than the pumpkin carving aspect.
Pumpkin carving world records and pumpkin festivals
For a long time, Keene, New Hampshire
held the world record
for most jack-o'-lanterns carved and lit in one place. Life is Good 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
when 30,128 jack-o'-lanterns were simultaneously lit on Boston Common
- A character in the Megami Tensei series called Pyro Jack is based on the folklore of the Jack o' Lantern.
- In the beginning of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington appears as a scarecrow with a jack-o'-lantern for a head before lighting his head on fire with a torch he took from the crowd and diving into a fountain, possibly symbolizing his similarity to the Jack-O'-Lantern folklore.
- In the comic book Jack of Fables, the Jack O'Lantern story is attributed to Jack Horner, a character who has been the "true" inspiration for virtually every folklore "Jack" in history. (Jack Frost, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc.)
- Ben Truwe, The Halloween Catalog Collection. Medford, Oregon: Talky Tina Press, 2003. ISBN 0-9703448-5-6. Contains a well-documented history of the jack-o'-lantern as an emblem of Halloween.
- Jack O Lantern Productions is a comic series featuring a pumpkin-headed character named Jack and his friends Lucy,BIRDY,BEJ,Death,Sonicin,Zigz,a Zombie Emo,Red,and a Mii character named Random.