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Origins of the Jack-O-Lantern

January 5, 2011

Halloween is nearly upon us; time, once again, for costumes and costume parties, haunted attractions, pranks, scary stories and, of course, trick-or-treating. While trick-or-treating is almost certainly the most popular part of our Halloween celebration, and the tradition most associated with the holiday, I would have to say that the single-most recognizable symbol of the Halloween season is the jack-o-lantern; the traditional hollowed-out pumpkin carved into a smiling or an ominous, glowing in the dark face.

Over the years, I've offered several Extension sponsored pumpkin carving workshops to 4-H groups and to the public at large. And. while carving a pumpkin into a frightening face seems quite fitting alongside ghouls, goblins, and other frolicking supernatural spirits, there is one question that I've been asked several times; "Why is it called a jack-o-lantern?"

Much of what is known about the origin of the jack-o-lantern is ambiguous, at best. Some folks believe that the first jack-o-lanterns were actually human skulls with candles burning inside them and that they were used ritualistically to keep evil spirits away. Wow! Nothing that I have ever read indicates that there is any truth to that notion, thank goodness! But, hey, you never know.

The first mention that I can find dates back to Celtic mythology. In Cornish lore there were five classes of fairies: the Small People, the Brownies, the Spriggans, the Buccas, Bockles or Knockers, and the Piskies. The Cornish Piskies went about confusing wary travelers, by getting them hopelessly lost and eventually leading them into bogs and moors with a ghostly light they 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 lights can still be seen. They are known as the Longendale Lights. There is even a hill, known as the Lantern Pike, where legend has it that Peggy with Lantern can still be seen swinging her lantern 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 is 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 are known as fairy lanterns. Fairy lanterns were once (and, for all I know, are still) used to call fairies, so that they might be seen.

An American version of the fairy lantern first appeared in the 1800s. In this autumnal variation of the original fairy lantern, leaves, nuts, fruit, and flowers were placed around the candle. These fairy lanterns eventually came to be called jack-o-lanterns and, in time, the fruit, nuts and other adornments were removed. In their place, only a carved pumpkin remained.

In Ireland, jack-o-lanterns were originally made from hollowed out turnips and may have been made from beets, as well. The Irish legend of the jack-o-lantern begins in a pub where, on a very dark 'All Hallows Eve' night, a drunken, quick-tempered, miserable old trickster of a blacksmith, named Jack, found himself seated at the same table as the devil himself. He told the devil that he was a wee bit short of cash that evening, and offered up his soul, if only the devil would change into sixpence, so he might buy one last drink. The devil, being all too eager to accept Jack's terms, quickly turned himself into a coin, which Jack, in turn, quickly tossed into his purse, a purse in which he also kept a silver cross. The devil was then, unable to turn himself back. Eventually, Jack and the devil came to an agreement whereby Jack would set the devil free and, in return, the devil would not claim Jack's soul for ten years.

Ten years later, the devil appeared while Jack was walking down a quiet country road. He asked Jack to accompany him and Jack told the devil that before leaving this earth, he wanted the pleasure of eating just one last apple. Old Jack asked the devil to climb the tree beside them and fetch him that apple, then helped the devil into the tree and, as the devil climbed higher, quickly carved crosses all around the trunk of the tree.

Once again, Jack had trapped the Devil. He agreed to set the devil free, only if the devil promised to never ask for or claim his soul. The evil one gave Jack his word. He would never take Jack's soul, not even after Jack died.

And, as it is with all people, eventually, Jack did die. And because, in life, he had been a deceitful liar, a miserable drinker, a money coveting cheat, and a gambler, he, of course, went straight to hell. But, the devil and Jack had made an agreement and Jack was immediately turned away. Poor Jack could neither get into heaven or hell, leaving him nowhere to go, but back. The devil laughed aloud. He took a coal straight from the fires of Hell and threw it at Jack, who picked it up and placed it inside the turnip that he had been eating in order to create a lantern, which he would use to light his way.

Some say that Jack's turnip and coal became known as a "lack-o-lantern" and that you can still see the light of that lack-o-lantern on All Hallows Eve as Jack wanders endlessly through purgatory, forever 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.

The Irish villagers, who used to fear that, on Halloween, ghosts might leave their graves and return to their previous homes and that the image of a damned soul would keep these spirits away, 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. That tradition was passed on through the generations and eventually jack-o-lanterns were used on Halloween night as festival lights.

From 1845 to 1850, the years of the Irish Potato Famine, more than 700,000 people left Ireland and immigrated to the United States. 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.



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