The word Jack-o’-Lantern has only been used since the early 19th century in American but the term dates back to 17th-century Britain, where it referred to a night watchman with a lantern tasked on keeping watch through the night. But, the use of gourds lit with candles goes back much farther than either of these terms.
The history of the Jack-o’-Lantern is muddled with poor research and confusing accounts. Why? Well because a lot of the tradition occurred in times where recording traditions like this weren’t very common.
Although pumpkins are the Jack of choice these days turnips, in pre-Christian Britain, were the most popular Jack-o’-Lanterns. However, beets and other smaller gourds were also popular Jacks to use. The early Jack-o’-Lantern had a similar function to a man with a lantern. During Samhain, which is believed to be when the lanterns were used the most, however, it is not unthinkable that it could be used during other time of the year. These turnips and other vegetables were carved with the most frightening faces a person could imagine. The scarier the better because it was the person’s hope that these carvings would scare away the spirits that would wander by their homes when the veil was thin. These faces were also sometimes illuminated by coals.
There is also the myth of Stingy Jack which is also linked to Jack-o’-Lanterns. In Ireland, ages ago, there lived a man named Stingy Jack. Based on name alone I’m sure you can guess he wasn’t a very fun fellow. He was known as the town drunkard and on top of that he often lied, cheated, stole, and played countless pranks on unsuspecting townsfolk. Every night he would walk down the pub and drink until he was kicked out.
One night on his evening sojourn to the pub he came across a grotesque and inhuman body lying on the ground. This frightening body was that of the Devil who had come to collect Jack’s soul and bring him to the depths of hell. Shocked, Jack requested one more earthly delight...another drink.
The Devil, surprisingly, agreed. So, they both walked to the pub and Jack ordered a drink. When he had finished his ale he turned to the Devil and with some unknown confidence requested the Devil pay the tab. The Devil was equally shocked at this request and wanting to continue the fun he transformed himself into a sixpence so he could walk over and give it to the bartender...but Jack didn’t pay.
Instead, he slid the six-pence piece into his pocket right next to his crucifix. Being so close to a crucifix trapped the Devil and lessened his powers. Having all the power, Jack decided to make a deal with the Devil...he’d let the Devil out of his pocket but only if he promised his spare his soul for another decade. The Devil agreed.
Ten years pass and a scene much like his first meeting with the Devil occurs. Jack, knowing his time was up, agreed but made one more request. He requested to eat one more able from a nearby apple tree. The Devil, pleased at this simple request, agreed and climbed up a tree. As he was climbing and distracted, Stingy Jack cunningly carved a cross into the tree with his knife. The Devil was stuck...again. And Jack had another barter. The Devil had to promise to never take his soul to hell. The Devil agreed.
Stingy Jack finally died after a long life of drinking and debauchery. He was turned away at the gates of heaven but was unable to go to Hell, either. So, he was doomed to wander alone. The Devil, strangely, felt something for the cunning man who had eluded him twice and gave Jack a single, burning ember to help light his way through the dark.
When Jack came upon a turnip he hollowed it out, placed the ever-burning ember inside, and created a lantern that would forever guide his way through the darkness of the netherworld. It was then he lost his nickname Stingy Jack and gained a new one...Jack of the Lantern.
So how did it come back in the 19th century? Well, Halloween used to be epically pranky. One of the most popular pranks involved carving faces into pumpkins and then using those pumpkin heads to scare people in the dead of night.
At the end of the 19th century, their attractiveness and symbology of Halloween took hold in America and they became a common decoration.
The above image is from Flickr user Benny Mazur. It is licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).