The legend of jack-o-lantern
Perhaps the single-most-recognizable symbol of the Halloween season is the traditional hollowed out pumpkin carved into a smiling or ominous, illuminated-in-the-dark face. But, “Why,” I’ve often been asked, “is it called a jack-o-lantern?”
While much of what’s known is ambiguous at best, the first widely-accepted mention I can find dates back to the five classes of fairies in Cornish lore: the Small People, the Brownies, the Spriggans, the Buccas, Bockles, or Knockers, and the Piskies.
The Piskies went about confusing wary travelers, getting them hopelessly lost and eventually leading them into bogs and moors with a ghostly light called Ignis Fatuus, “the foolish fire.” Among the named Piskies were Will-O’-the-Wisp, Joan the Wad, and Jack-O’-Lantern.
Today, in the high peaks of Derbyshire England, mysterious illuminations – the Longendale Lights — are still observed. There’s even a hill, known as the Lantern Pike, where legend has it that “Peggy-with-Lantern” can be seen swinging her lamp on the summit. Another mischievous spirit, Meg-O’-the-Lantern, can be seen on the south side of the River Derwent, near Derby.
In these regions, there’s a centuries-old tradition of making lanterns from seasonal fruit, flowers, and plants arranged around a candle, so as to cause strange shadows to be cast. They’re known as fairy lanterns, and were once (and, for all I know, are still) used to summon fairies.
An American adaptation of the fairy lantern, in which leaves, nuts, fruit, and flowers were placed around the candle, first appeared in the 1800s. These fairy lanterns eventually came to be called jack-o-lanterns. Over time, the adornments were removed. In their place, only a carved pumpkin remained.
In Ireland, where jack-o-lanterns were originally made from hollowed out turnips and beets, legend describes a very dark “All Hallows Eve” night and a drunken, quick-tempered, miserable old trickster of a blacksmith, named Jack, who finds himself in a pub seated beside the Devil himself. Short of cash, Jack offers up his soul, if only the Devil will turn himself into sixpence, so he might buy one last drink. The Devil, being all too eager to accept Jack’s terms, hastily turns himself into a coin, which Jack quickly tosses into his purse – a purse in which he also kept a silver cross. The Devil, finding himself unable to turn back, eventually agrees to wait 10 years before claiming Jack’s soul, in exchange for being set free.
When the Devil appears 10 years later and asks Jack to accompany him, Jack is walking down a quiet country road. Old Jack tells the Devil that, before leaving this earth, he wants the pleasure of eating just one last apple and asks the Devil to climb the tree beside them and fetch him that apple. Jack helps the Devil into the tree and, as the Devil climbs higher, quickly carves crosses all around the trunk of the tree, trapping the Devil again. This time, in exchange for being set free, the evil one agrees never to take Jack’s soul, not even in death.
As it is with all things, Jack did die in time. And because he’d been a deceitful liar, a miserable drinker, a money-coveting cheat, and a gambler, he, of course, went promptly to Hell. But the Devil, in living up to his agreement, immediately turned Jack away. Poor Jack could neither get into Heaven or Hell, leaving him nowhere to go but back. Laughing aloud, the Devil, took a coal straight from Hell’s fire and threw it at Jack, who picked it up and placed it inside the turnip he’d been eating, creating a lantern, which he would use to light his way.
Some say that the light from Jack’s turnip and coal can still be seen, as Jack wanders endlessly through purgatory, looking for a home. Others say that Jack’s damned soul can be seen walking the countryside. Jack-of-the-Lantern he is called – Jack-O’-Lantern.
Irish villagers once feared that ghosts might leave their graves on Halloween, returning to their prior homes, but that the image of a damned soul would keep the unearthly spirits away. They created their own lack-o-lanterns, hollowing out turnips or beets, painting faces on them or carving faces into them, and then placing lit candles inside.
From 1845 to 1850, the years of the Irish Potato Famine, more than 700,000 people left Ireland and immigrated to the U.S. They found that, while turnips were hard to come by, pumpkins were plentiful. And, since pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve, they could be used to make even better jack-o-lanterns. That custom remains today, and jack-o-lanterns are seen literally everywhere on Halloween.