Monday, October 3, 2011
THE NAME "jack-o'-lantern" is British and dates from the 17th century, when it literally meant "man with a lantern" (a night watchman). It was also a nickname for the natural phenomenon known as ignis fatuus (fool's fire) or "will o' the wisp," the mysterious, flickering lights sometimes seen at night over wetlands and associated in folklore with fairies and ghosts playing pranks on travelers.
Over time "jack-o'-lantern" became the popular term for a homemade object also known as a "turnip lantern," defined by Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire as "a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it." In some parts of Great Britain carrying jack o'lanterns was considered a form of pranksterism. Darlington writes: "It is a common device of mischievous lads for frightening belated wayfarers on the road." In other locales (or perhaps in earlier times) children carried jack-o'lanterns on the eves of All Saints' and All Souls' Days to represent souls of the dead trapped in Purgatory.
According to legend, the jack-o'-lantern took its name from a reprobate Irishman known as Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil into promising he wouldn't have to go to hell for his sins. When Jack died he found out he had been barred from heaven, so he journeyed to the gates of hell to demand his due. Wouldn't you know it, the Devil kept his promise and doomed Jack to wander the earth for all eternity with only an ember of hellfire of to light his way. Thenceforth he was known as Jack O'Lantern.
It wasn't until Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o'-lanterns to North America that the more commonly available pumpkin came to be used for that purpose, and not until the mid-to-late 19th century that pumpkin carving became a Halloween staple across the United States.