My family have always carved at least one pumpkin at Hallowe’en. As soon as it gets near we trudge off to weigh up the pumpkins on offer at the local supermarket, choosing one to carve. As I spooned the stringy innards of my pumpkin this year it got me thinking about how old this tradition actually is.
I’ve always thought ‘Jack-o-Lantern’ was an American name; my family have always just call them ‘Pumpkins’. How wrong I have been! The etymology is actually quite interesting. The name Jack-o-Lantern seems to have links to will-o’-the wisps, the strange lights that flicker over bogs luring travellers to their doom. However, in 1663 the Oxford English Dictionary makes reference to ‘Jack-with-the-lantern’ and in 1704 ‘Jack of lanthorns’, both referring to lamp bearing night watchmen. To throw in another wild card, the name also bears some similarity to an Elizabethan tradition of pelting stones at a scarecrow named ‘Jack-o-Lent’, a target on Ash Wednesday.
There’s also an Irish folk tale about ‘Stingy Jack’ often quoted as the origin of Jack-o-Lanterns. The story goes that Stingy Jack invited the devil to drink with him, but didn’t want to have to pay for the pleasure. So he somehow convinced the shape shifting devil to change into a coin to pay for the drinks. Once the devil did so, Jack decided to pocket the money instead, putting the coin shaped devil in his pocket alongside a cross which meant that the devil couldn’t turn himself back into his gloriously devilish self. Devious Jack continued tricking the devil, preventing him from taking his soul. However, when Jack did die God didn’t want that kind of soul in heaven and out of spite the devil didn’t want him in hell either. Instead the devil sent him wandering the earth with embers in a carved out turnip as the original Jack of the Lantern, shortened to Jack-o-Lantern; a wandering soul, like Will-o’-the-wisp, his lamp led night-time travellers into bogs and their doom.
So there are a number of stories, but there’s quite a considerable amount of confusion as to the origin on Jack-o-Lanterns became so strongly associated with Hallowe’en. Did it come from Irish, or maybe it was upheld by the Scottish in light of the potato famine where scarce food wouldn’t not be wasted on making lanterns? It makes sense for a lost soul like Jack to wander on ‘All Hallows Eve’, a time dedicated to remembering the dead in pagan, and later adopted and adapted by Christian, calendars.
We have been carving faces into vegetables and lighting them up for quite a considerable time, but pumpkins are a fairly new addition to the tradition. Being natives to North America it wasn’t until migrants, probably heading from Ireland between 1845 and 1852 due to the catastrophic potato famine, brought their customs to America and realised carving already fairly hollow pumpkins was a lot easier than hollowing out solid turnips.
I think Skal (2016) sums it up perfectly by saying that Jack-o-Lanterns are as elusive as their Will-o’-the-wisps inspiration.