With Halloween nearly upon us, children everywhere will be carving pumpkins into 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, 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 than just artistic fun.
Some folks believe 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 I’ve read indicates that there is any truth to that notion, thank goodness.
The earliest mention of a Jack O’ Lantern I was able to locate dates back to post-medieval Celtic mythology. In Cornish lore, there are five classes of fairies. One, the Cornish Piskies, went about getting wary travelers hopelessly lost and eventually led them into bogs and moors with a ghostly light townsfolk called a will o’ the wisp, or ignis fatuus (the foolish fire). There are only two named Piskies, Joan the Wad and Jack O’ Lantern.
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. They are known as fairy lanterns and were used to call fairies so they might be seen.
An American version of the fairy lantern first appeared in the 1800s. In this autumnal variation, 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In Ireland, Jack O’ Lanterns were originally made from hollowed out turnips and may have been made from beets as well.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 began 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 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.