Origins of the Jack O’ Lantern

With Halloween nearly upon us, children everywhere will be carving pumpkins into the Jack O’ Lanterns that will welcome trick-or-treaters to their homes on Halloween. Whether carving the traditional friendly faces and ghoulish grins or something a bit more unusual, a whole lot creepier or laugh-out-loud funny, creating a Jack O’ Lantern is good old fashioned fun. For many, it’s a family tradition. But there’s more to the origin of the Jack O’ Lantern than just artistic fun!

Some folks believe that the first Jack O’ Lanterns were actually human skulls with candles burning inside them and that they were used ritualistically to keep evil spirits away. Nothing that I’ve ever read indicates that there is any truth to that notion, thank goodness!

The earliest mention of a Jack O’ Lantern that I was able to locate dates back to post-medieval Celtic mythology. In Cornish lore there are five classes of fairies: the Small People, the Brownies, the Spriggans, the Buccas, Bockles or Knockers, and the Piskies. The Cornish Piskies went about getting wary travelers hopelessly lost and eventually leading them into bogs and moors with a ghostly light townsfolk called “Will o’ the Wisp” or Ignis Fatuus (the foolish fire). There are only two named Piskies; Joan the Wad and Jack O’ Lantern. In Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s “History of Polperro” (1871), he quotes the following rhyme: “Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad; Who tickled the maid and made her mad; Light me home, the weather’s bad.”

Today, in the high peaks of Derbyshire, mysterious lights can still be seen. They are known as the Longendale Lights. There is even a hill, known as the Lantern Pike, where legend has it that Peggy with Lantern can still be seen swinging her lantern on the summit. Another mischievous spirit, Meg O’ the Lantern, can be seen on the south side of the River Derwent, near Derby.

In these regions, there is a centuries-old tradition of making lanterns from seasonal fruit, flowers and plants arranged around a candle, so as to cause strange shadows to be cast. They are known as fairy lanterns and were once (and, for all I know, are still) used to call fairies, so that they might be seen.

An American version of the fairy lantern first appeared in the 1800s. In this autumnal variation of the original fairy lantern, leaves, nuts, fruit and flowers were placed around the candle. These fairy lanterns eventually came to be called Jack O’ Lanterns and, in time, the fruit, nuts and other adornments were removed. In their place, only a carved pumpkin remained.

In Ireland, Jack O’ Lanterns were originally made from hollowed out turnips and may have been made from beets, as well. The Irish legend of the first Jack O’ Lantern begins in a pub where, on a very dark All Hallows Eve night, a drunken, quick-tempered, miserable old trickster of a blacksmith, named Jack, found himself seated at the same table as the Devil himself. He told the Devil that he was a wee bit short of cash that evening and offered up his soul if only the Devil would change into sixpence, so Jack might buy one last drink. The Devil, being all too eager to accept Jack’s terms, quickly turned himself into a coin, which Jack, in turn, quickly tossed into his purse; a purse in which he also kept a silver cross. The Devil was unable to turn himself back.

Eventually, Jack and the Devil came to an agreement. Jack would set the Devil free and, in return, the Devil would not claim Jack’s soul for 10 years.

Ten years later, the Devil appeared while Jack was walking down a quiet country road. He asked Jack to accompany him, but Jack asked the Devil to grant him the pleasure of eating just one last apple, before leaving this earth, and beseeched the Devil to climb the tree beside them and fetch him that apple. The Devil agreed and Jack helped him into the tree. But, as the Devil climbed higher, Jack quickly carved crosses all around the trunk of the tree. Once again, Jack had trapped the Devil; agreeing to set the Devil free, only if he promised never to ask for or claim Jack’s soul. The evil one gave Jack his word. He would never take Jack’s soul; not even after Jack died.

As it is with all people, Jack did eventually die. And because he had, in life, been a deceitful liar, a miserable drinker, a money coveting cheat, and a gambler, he, of course, went straight to Hell where, because of their agreement, the Devil immediately turned Jack away. Poor Jack could neither get into Heaven or Hell, leaving him nowhere to go, but back. The Devil laughed aloud and taking coal straight from the fires, threw it at Jack, who picked it up and placed it inside the turnip that he’d been eating, to create a lantern which he would use to light his way.

Some say that Jack’s turnip and coal became known as a “Lack O’ Lantern” and that you can still see the light of that Lack O’ Lantern on All Hallows Eve as Jack wanders endlessly through purgatory, forever looking for a home. Others say that Jack’s damned soul can be seen walking the countryside. Jack of the lantern, he is called – Jack O’ Lantern.

Irish villagers used to fear that ghosts might leave their graves on Halloween to return to their previous homes. Believing that the image of a damned soul would keep those spirits away, they created their own Lack O’ Lanterns, hollowing out turnips or beets, painting faces on or carving faces into them, and then placing lit candles inside them. That tradition was passed on for generations until, eventually, Jack O’ Lanterns were used on Halloween night as festival lights.

From 1845 to 1850, the years of the Irish potato famine, more than 700,000 people left Ireland and immigrated to the United States. They found that turnips were hard to come by, but that pumpkins were plentiful and, since pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve, they could be used to make even better Jack O’ Lanterns. That custom remains today and is, at least in part, why Jack O’ Lanterns are seen literally everywhere on Halloween.

In recent years, growing giant Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins has become all the rage. But, can enormous Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins be grown around here? Most growers and gardeners will tell you that having the right seed makes most anything possible. Although environment will most certainly affect the outcome, you simply cannot grow gigantic Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins, unless your seed has the genetic capability to produce them. Locally, Big Max and Mammoth Gold seem to be the two most popular garden varieties, although Prizewinner hybrid seed is reputed to produce Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins that are the most uniform in size, shape and color. If your goal is to grow the largest pumpkin in the world, you will want to grow the Atlantic Giant hybrid variety. Since 1979, every world champion pumpkin grown has been either directly or indirectly from Howard Dill’s patented Atlantic Giant hybrid seed.

Currently, the reigning world heavyweight champion is Ron Wallace, from Greene, R.I. Ron’s colossal cucurbit claimed the world pumpkin growing record for him, at the Topsfield Fair in Topsfield, Mass., on Sept. 28, 2012, when his elephantine entry weighed in at 2009 pounds; the first and, to date, the only time that anyone has grown a pumpkin that weighing more than a ton.