The Surprising Spooky Origin Story of the Jack-o'-Lantern
Did you know it all started with turnips?
Few things go more hand-in-hand with Halloween than jack-o'-lanterns. Every year, come October, carved pumpkins start to crop up on every porch and windowsill. Today, making your own jack-o'-lantern is a wholesome Halloween activity that's fun for the whole family (except maybe the person who's tasked with removing the gourd's innards). But the origin story of the jack-o'-lantern is actually far from innocent.
It begins with Mischief Night, the evening before Halloween, when troublemakers roam the streets and wreak havoc on townspeople. On this night in 19th-century Ireland, as well as the other British Isles, pranksters would sometimes use makeshift lamps made out of hollowed out vegetables, like turnips and beets, to prank their friends. (Of course, Halloween also aligns with the fall harvest, when these vegetables are at their most plentiful.)
"The traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirts or goblins," according to The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by English historian Ronald Hutton, a professor at the University of Bristol. "The carved-out faces, outlined by the candle within, were … warnings of death, and used to scare unpopular people."
The large-scale Irish immigration to the United States in the 19th century brought a heightened observation of Halloween to America, including these carved-out vegetable lanterns. But stateside, pumpkins proved both more common and easier to carve. So, ne'er-do-wells started carving crude faces into pumpkins instead, which also helped the lanterns look like disembodied heads. (See: The Headless Horseman.)
"Halloween developed steadily into a national festivity for Americans, guising becoming a ubiquitous tradition of fancy dress to represent ghosts, goblins, and witches, pumpkins replacing Irish vegetables as cases for lanterns, and mischief-making and house-to-house calls combining in the custom of trick-or-treat," Hutton notes.
But how did the name jack-o'-lantern come to be? Well, according to Merriam-Webster, the term, which originated in 17th-century Britain, was used to refer to night watchmen who carried lanterns. "At that time, the British often called men whose names they didn't know by a common name, like Jack," the etymology experts note. "Thus, an unknown man carrying a lantern was sometimes called 'Jack with the lantern' or 'Jack of the lantern.'"
And there's a specific "Jack of the lantern" that the Halloween staple may be referring to. The tale, whose history also starts in Ireland, has many permeations, but the most common version goes back to "Stingy Jack," a miserable man who spent his life tricking and stealing from everyone who came his way.
According to The Dublin Penny Journal's retelling of this folklore in 1835, Jack was "a man whose natural disposition was churlish and morose, and the asperities of whose soul had not been softened down by the influences of a knowledge of God." When Stingy Jack eventually died, God refused him entry into heaven and the Devil did the same in hell.
"Because he was unfit for heaven and that hell refused to take him, he decreed to walk the earth with a lantern to light him on his nightly way till the day of judgment," according to The Dublin Penny Journal. Legend has it, Stingy Jack still spends his days roaming in the dark, trying in vain to find a final resting place, with his trusty lantern in hand.
And, as the mythos of Stingy Jack of the Lantern grew and grew over the course of the 19th century, the carved-out Halloween pumpkins eventually earned a new moniker: jack-o'-lanterns! And for more spooky trivia about everyone's favorite holiday, check out these 30 Facts About Halloween No One Ever Told You.
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