Halloween is right around the corner, so what better time to explore the legend of the jack o’lantern. Good old Jack has had a long history and you may be surprise to learn originally the term didn’t refer to a vegetable at all. Jack was an all-purpose term, like “bub” or “fella”, use to denote a man. A night watchman who carried a torch or lantern at night was called a Jack o’lantern or “the guy with the lantern”. In the days before electricity, lights at night were creepy especially when they mysteriously appeared over bogs, swamps, or marshes—places where no living being in their right mind wandered at night. Caused by ignited gases from decomposing plant matter, these ghost lights had a variety of names; hinkypunks, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, fool's fire, and good old jack o’lantern. Lacking a scientific explanation, people told stories to explain their appearance. In Ireland, they often involved Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack lived up to his name. The legend goes he invited the Devil to a local pub for a few rounds and wheedled the Devil to turn into a coin so neither would have to pay. Jack put the Devil into his pocket next to a silver cross so he couldn’t change back into his demonic form. He freed the Devil only after a promise that when Jack died he wouldn’t claim his soul.
When Jack finally kicked the bucket, God refused entry into heaven for such an unsavory character. Frankly, I don’t get God’s reasoning in this. It seems to me The Almighty should have gotten a big kick out of how Jack tricked the Devil, but there’s no arguing with the divine. The Devil had already promised not to claim Jack’s soul so the poor guy was dumped back on Earth, a wandering spirit with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming ever since. Thus Jack of the Lantern or Jack O’Lantern was born.
On All Soul’s Eve, wandering spirits such as Jack were supposed to be particularly frisky, playing tricks and causing mischief. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. Children would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing vegetable to trick people into thinking Stingy Jack or another lost soul was watching. People began carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten Jack and his cohorts away.
Stingy Jack wasn’t the only Jack to cause trouble though. A wraith called Spring-Heeled Jack first started to appear in 1837. Residents of London began to report bizarre harassment from a ghost, imp or devil apparition in the shape of a large white bull. The strange figure would ring a doorbell and then ravage the clothes of the person who answered. Sometimes he simply ambushed people out walking. He was an athletic fellow, capable of scaling walls and jumping across rooftops. Thus, the spring heels. He often appeared in different guises such as a ghost, a bear, or devil or wearing red shoes or armor. The idea of costumes began to be linked to an apparition named Jack who like to play tricks on unsuspecting souls.
Immigrants from the British Isles brought the legend of Stingy Jack and Spring-heeled Jack with them, along with the custom of carving marrows and tuber and lighting them with candles. Pumpkins were plentiful in the fall and made even better jack o’-lanterns with large surfaces perfect for carving. The two Jacks merged, brought the pumpkin with them, and combined with local harvest festival traditions. Soon All Hallows Eve became the day to carve crude faces into pumpkins to frighten wandering spirits away. It was only a hop, skip, and a boo from there to our modern custom of exacting tribute from perfect strangers to keep Jack and his ghostly companions from our doors.
L. A. Kelley writes science fiction and fantasy adventures with humor, romance, and a touch of sass. She knows Jack.