Nothing symbolizes Halloween like the jack-o-lantern. Its bulbous shape, carved by the hand of its own unique creator glows from porch fronts and window sills only one night each year. Carving the pumpkin has become the ritual for many households on Halloween night, and whether “Jack” is warm and inviting or downright scary, it is synonymous with the sight of children dressed in costumes, drifting door to door asking for tricks or treats.
Like any festive symbol the jack-o-lantern comes laden with tales about its distant folksy origins. And its exact provenance is as murky as a misty cemetery on Halloween night. As we dress our homes up with the fall harvest of gourds and pumpkins prepared to be carved, let’s look back at the quirky fables that define the origins of the jack-o-lantern.
Carving vegetables has been a common practice seen around the world for centuries. The earliest plant species domesticated by humans were gourds, cultivated particularly for their ease of carving. The first of many narratives believes that the custom of jack-o-lantern carving came from the British Isles. Turnips, potatoes and beets were used in lieu of pumpkins and as the story goes, the vegetable lanterns were stuffed with coal, wood embers or candles, as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest.
Some historians claim the jack-o-lantern was seen in parts of Ireland in the 19th century around Halloween time, where monstrous faces were carved into turnips or squashes, representing spirits or goblins. These were used as lanterns to guide those who went disguised on the night of All Hallows Eve. Other historians claim the jack-o-lanterns originated with All Saints’ Day on November 1st and represented Christian souls in purgatory. Still often seen in windowsills, the lanterns were intended to keep the evil spirits out of one’s home.
But then there is the story of Jack, because of course somewhere along the path of folktale lore our ghoulish little pumpkins adopted their name sake. ‘Stingy Jack’ is often described as a drunken blacksmith. One night he invited the Devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for the drinks out of his own pocket and convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin (the Devil can, after all, turn himself into anything) that could be used to settle the tab. The Devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the Devil-coin in his pocket, alongside a silver cross so the Devil couldn’t shift back into his original form. Jack eventually let the Devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.
When Stingy Jack (an obvious sinner) died, God would not allow him into Heaven. The Devil kept his word and rejected Jack’s soul at the Gates of Hell. Instead, the Devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own Hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the Earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside, and he and the lights were dubbed “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern.”
These tales give me visions of reaching back centuries and carving turnips for the first time this year. I’ve used potatoes to make potato stamps but never considered carving miniature lanterns out of them before. With visions of glowing carved vegetables lit by a luminous little flame in mind, this year’s Halloween will be a little different than the ones before. And our jack-o-lantern, without a doubt, will capture a whole new meaning this October 31st.
Start decorating for fall and pick up your pumpkins for Halloween from Buchanan’s! What will your jack-o-lantern look like this year?