A jack-o’-lantern (or jack o’lantern) is a carved pumpkin or turnip lantern, associated with the holiday of Halloween and named after the phenomenon of a strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern. In a jack-o’-lantern, the top of the pumpkin or turnip is cut off to form a lid, the inside flesh is scooped out, and an image — usually a monstrous or comical face – is carved out of the rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source is placed within before the lid is closed. The light source is traditionally a flame such as a candle or tea light, but artificial jack-‘o-lanterns with electric lights are also marketed. It is common to see jack-o’-lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations prior to and on Halloween.
The term jack-o’-lantern was originally used to describe the visual phenomenon ignis fatuus (lit., “foolish fire”) known as a will-o’-the-wisp in English folklore. Used especially in East England, 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.”
The carving of vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world, and gourds were the earliest plant species domesticated by humans c. 10,000 years ago, primarily for their carving potential. For example, gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago; the Māori word for a gourd also describes a lampshade.
It is believed that the custom of making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween began in Ireland. In the 19th century, “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces,” were used at Halloween in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. In these Celtic-speaking regions, Halloween was also the festival of Samhain and was seen as a time when supernatural beings (the Aos Sí), and the souls of the dead, roamed the earth. The belief that the souls of the dead roamed the earth at Halloween was also found in other parts of Europe. Jack-o’-lanterns were also made at Halloween in Somerset (see Punkie Night) during the 19th century.
By those who made them, the lanterns were variously said to represent the spirits or supernatural beings, or were used to ward off evil spirits. For example, sometimes they were used by Halloween guisers to frighten people, and sometimes they were set on windowsills to keep harmful spirits out of one’s home. It has also been suggested that the jack-o’-lanterns originally represented Christian souls in purgatory, as Halloween is the eve of All Saints’ Day (1 November)/All Souls’ Day (2 November).
At Halloween in 1835, the Dublin Penny Journal carried a lengthy discourse on the legend of “Jack-o’-the-Lantern”. In 1837, the Limerick Chronicle refers to a local pub holding a carved gourd competition and presenting a prize to “the best crown of Jack McLantern”. The term “McLantern” also appears in an 1841 publication of the same paper.
There is also 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:
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 North America
Adaptations of Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820) often depict the Headless Horseman with a pumpkin or jack-o’-lantern in place of his severed head. (In the original story, a shattered pumpkin is discovered next to Ichabod Crane’s abandoned hat on the morning after Crane’s supposed encounter with the Horseman.)
The application of the term to carved pumpkins in American English is first attested in 1834. The carved pumpkin lantern’s association with Halloween is recorded in the 1 November 1866 edition of the Daily News (Kingston, Ontario):
The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe’en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.
Content retrieved from: Jack-o-lantern.