Carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns is one of the most widespread Halloween traditions in the world. However, the term “jack-o’-lantern” has not always referred to the decorative, light-filled pumpkins that embellish porches and storefronts each October. Here is some of the early history and lore surrounding the Halloween tradition of carving pumpkins.
Historians believe that the custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns that represent human faces around Halloween originated in Ireland in the 1800s. These jack-o’-lanterns were often made during the Celtic festival of Samhain, a time when residents believed that the spirits of the dead temporarily inhabited the Earth.
Jack-o’-lanterns displayed during Samhain were considered to be both representations of the visiting spirits as well as talismans used to ward evil supernatural forces away from homes and communities. Jack-o’-lanterns placed on windowsills were intended to protect the home and its inhabitants from intrusive evil spirits, and jack-o’-lanterns worn or carried during Samhain festivities were intended to represent the spirits themselves.
The first mention of a jack-o’-lantern in lore is in a 17th century Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. In the myth, Stingy Jack and the Devil have a drink at a bar. After they finish their drinks, Stingy Jack refuses to pay for his. Instead, he chooses to turn the Devil into a coin, and pockets the coin.
Later, Stingy Jack sets the Devil free, but makes him promise to keep Jack out of hell after Jack’s death. The devil, harboring resentment over Jack’s deception, tricks Stingy Jack by banning him from both heaven and hell, dooming him to wander the Earth forever. In the myth, the Devil gives Stingy Jack a hollowed out turnip with a piece of hellfire in the middle to use as a lantern. His resulting nickname, “Jack of the Lantern” was subsequently shortened to “jack-o’-lantern.”
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
A jack-o’-lantern is also featured in Washington Irving’s 1820 story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In the story, a Hessian artilleryman is decapitated in battle in New York during the Revolutionary War. In the following years, he rises from the grave each Halloween, with a jack-o’-lantern in the place of his missing head, to terrorize the community and to search for the remains of his head.
As early as the 1600s the term jack-o’-lantern was used to describe a phenomenon otherwise known as will-o’-the-wisp in England. A will-o’-the-wisp is a ghostly light often seen from a distance and at night by travelers in the English countryside. The phenomenon is often seen in countryside around marshes, swamps, or bogs, and is said to recede as the traveler draws closer, drawing them away from the road or path.
The term will-o’-the-wisp, comes from the word “wisp,” meaning a bundle of sticks or straw commonly used as a torch, and the name “Will,” making the name mean literally “Will of the torch.” Other terms besides jack-o’-lantern that were used to describe the phenomenon include hinkypunk and hobby lantern.