Jack-O’-Lantern – Halloween folklore and tradition



A Jack-o’-lantern is a carved pumpkin or similarly-sized gourd or turnip, associated chiefly with the holiday of Halloween, and was named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern. In a jack-o’-lantern, the top is cut off to form a lid, and the inside flesh is then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved out of the pumpkin’s rind to expose the hollow interior.

To create the lantern effect, a light source is placed within before the lid is closed, traditionally a candle flame. It is common to see jack-o’-lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations during Halloween.


The term jack-o’-lantern is in origin a term for the visual phenomenon ignis fatuus (literally, “foolish fire”) known as a will-o’-the-wisp in English folklore. Used especially in East Anglia, its earliest known use dates to the 1660s. The term “will-o’-the-wisp” uses “wisp” (a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch) and the proper name “Will”: thus, “Will-of-the-torch.” The term jack-o’-lantern is of the same construction: “Jack of [the] lantern.”


The carving of root vegetables may appear to be a way of utilising usually unwanted oversized harvest but records of Man performing this task date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago, with the Māori word for a gourd also used to describe a lampshade. There is a common belief that the custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns at Hallowe’en originated in Ireland, where turnips, mangelwurzel or beetroot were supposedly used. The carvings were said to represent spirits or goblins around the festival of Samhain. Conversely, other theories suggest they were simply ornate lanterns or even perhaps the representation of souls stuck in purgatory.


Although study into Irish folklore has found no specific records of turnip lanterns, English accounts record something very similar, turnips being used to carve what was called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern” in Worcestershire at the end of the 18th century. These were placed randomly atop hedgerows to ward off ne’er-do-well travellers. More precise accounts are recorded from the early 1800s across Europe but in particular, the British Isles, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and Spain.


Irish tales speak of Stingy Jack, also known as Jack the Smith, Drunk Jack, and Jack of the Lantern, a character always associated with All Hallows Eve. It is common lore that the “jack-o’-lantern” is derived from the Jack of this legend. The most repeated account tells of a drunkard known as “Stingy Jack”, known throughout the land as a deceiver, manipulator and otherwise dreg of society.

On a fateful night, the devil overheard the tale of Jack’s evil deeds and silver tongue. Unconvinced (and envious) of the rumours, the devil went to find out for himself whether or not Jack lived up to his vile reputation. Lo’, the inevitably drunken Jack staggered home one night and found a body on his cobblestone path. The body with an eerie grimace on its face turned out to be Satan.


Jack realised this was his end; Satan had finally come to collect his malevolent soul. Jack made a last request: he asked Satan to let him drink ale before he departed to Hades. Finding no reason not to acquiesce the request, Satan took Jack to the local pub and supplied him with many alcoholic beverages.

Upon quenching his thirst, Jack asked Satan to pay the tab on the ale, to Satan’s surprise. Jack convinced Satan to metamorphose into a silver coin with which to pay the bartender (impressed upon by Jack’s unyielding nefarious tactics). Shrewdly, Jack stuck the now transmogrified Satan (coin) into his pocket, which also contained a crucifix.

The crucifix’s presence kept Satan from escaping his form. This coerced Satan to agree to Jack’s demand: in exchange for Satan’s freedom, he had to spare Jack’s soul for ten years.


Ten years later to the date when Jack originally struck his deal, he found himself once again in Satan’s presence. Jack happened upon Satan in the same setting as before and seemingly accepted it was his time to go to Hades for good. As Satan prepared to take him to Hades, Jack asked if he could have one apple to feed his starving belly.

Foolishly Satan once again agreed to this request. As Satan climbed up the branches of a nearby apple tree, Jack surrounded its base with crucifixes. Satan, frustrated at the fact that he been entrapped again, demanded his release. As Jack did before, he made a demand: that his soul never be taken by Satan into Hades. Satan agreed and was set free.

Eventually, the drinking and unstable lifestyle took its toll on Jack; he died the way he lived. As Jack’s soul prepared to enter Heaven through the gates of St. Peter he was stopped. Jack was told by God that because of his sinful lifestyle of deceitfulness and drinking, he was not allowed into Heaven.

The dreary Jack went before the Gates of Hades and begged for commission into the underworld. Satan, fulfilling his obligation to Jack, could not take his soul. To warn others, he gave Jack an ember, marking him a denizen of the netherworld. From that day on until eternity’s end, Jack is doomed to roam the world between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember inside a hollowed turnip (“turnip” actually referring to a large swede) to light his way.


On a very basic level, Jack o’ lanterns were also a way of protecting your home against the undead. Superstitious people used them specifically to ward away vampires as it was said that the Jack-o-lantern’s light was a way of identifying the fiends and, once their identity was known, would give up their hunt for you.

Halloween cheesecake pic by Enoch Bolles, 1945
Halloween cheesecake pic by Enoch Bolles, 1945

The American tradition of carving pumpkins (chosen because of their profusion and bright colour) is first recorded in 1837 and was originally associated with harvest time in general, not becoming specifically associated with Halloween until later in the 19th century.

The tradition of carving pumpkins is still largely associated with the USA and Americans have concocted many recipes to ensure masses of gigantic orange vegetables do not go to waste. As global trends spread, pumpkin carving is rapidly becoming a must around the world too…


The carving of pumpkins has progressed from a craggy-toothed will-this-do effigy to a true art-form. Popular figures, symbols, and logos are now seen used on pumpkins, a variety of tools used to carve and hollow out the gourd, ranging from simple knives and spoons to specialised instruments. Candles are sometimes replaced with electric light of various colours to enhance the end result. So competitive has the pursuit become that pumpkins are sometimes grown into moulds so that usually impossible creations can be attempted.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA

For a gallery of Jack-o’-lantern images click the page 2 link below

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