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!”
John Greenleaf Whittier, 1850
As Halloween approaches we are inundated by those carved pumpkin faces from scary to adorable – simple to complicated. I have even seen Pumpkin Minions!
Jack-o’-Lanterns have a very long history. Carved vegetables and fruits have been used for millennia to light our ancestors’ way in the dark night. Gourds may have been the first vegetable domesticated for this purpose. It’s estimated they were first domesticated 10,000 years ago! In Europe and the British Iles, turnips and mangel-wurzels, a variety of beet, were generally used.
Try to imagine how frightening the night was for our ancestors. The only light they might have in their homes was a small fire and the outside was filled with the sounds of animals moving around in the night. Thus, they were very superstitious, imagining all sorts of dangers. Of course, there were real dangers too. According to historian, Ronald Hutton, as late as the 19th century, villagers in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands carved grotesque faces representing spirits or goblins. These grotesques would be lit with a candle stub and placed on the windowsills to keep harmful spirits out of one’s home.
One explanation of the term Jack-o’-Lantern is that it is another name for the strange flickering light often seen over peat bogs, or “Will-o-the-Wisp”. The “wisp” was a torch made of a bundle of sticks or paper, and “Will” was a proper name given to the phenomenon. Thus, Jack-o’-Lantern is “Jack of the Lantern”.
Jack stole a precious object from some villagers. As he was being chased, he encounters Satan who tells him it’s his time to die. Clever Jack quickly stalls the old rogue by offering a tempting suggestion. Jack suggests that it might be more amusing for Satan to toy with the church-going villagers who were chasing him. Jack talked the devil into turning into a coin that he would pay the villagers for the goods he had stolen, eventually returning to his original self, thus setting the villagers against each other wondering which one of them had stolen the coin. You can imagine the Devil’s delight as he turns into a silver coin and jumps into Jack’s wallet, only to find himself next to the precious object, a cross that Jack had stolen. Thus, the Devil was trapped because the cross stripped him of his powers.
Jack eventually lets Satan go after he agrees to never take his soul. Unfortunately, Jack’s cleverness dooms him. After his death, Jack was judged too sinful to go to heaven. Since the Devil would not take him and he wouldn’t be accepted into heaven, it was his fate to roam the Earth for eternity. Jack asked Satan how he would see where to go since he had no light, and Satan mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of Hell which would never burn out. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the ember inside, and thus, began his endless wandering of the Earth looking for a resting place.
In America, because pumpkins were plentiful and easier to carve, the new immigrants chose it as their Jack-o’Lantern. Most of us are familiar with the depiction of the Headless Horseman with a pumpkin head from Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. However, the 1820 original version of the story only mentions a smashed pumpkin being found next to Ichabod Crane’s hat which had been abandoned in his haste to escape from the Horseman.
The term Jack-o’-Lantern is first used in American English and is first recorded in 1866 in association with Halloween revels. Old customs are hard to extinguish. The November 1, 1866, Daily News in Kingston, Ontario reports:
“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.”
The carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Halloween, The New York Times, of October 21, 1900, recommends using a lit Jack-o’-Lantern as part of the festivities.
Much more can be said about Jack and his Lantern, but I’ll end it here and let you discover and create your own Jack-o’-Lantern customs and lore.