With Halloween approaching, we’re entering into many peoples favorite time of year. From the free candy to the spooky decorations, Halloween has become a night to have fun for many across the world. Many people’s favorite activity is carving pumpins into Jack o’ lanterns, but why are they even called that?
The name Jack o’ lantern makes a little sense, after all the pumpkin has a face (I guess his name is Jack?) and usually there’s a light inside – that’s the o’ lantern part? Well I guess that solves it then…
When you actually stop and think about it though, that expanation falls a little short. Why Jack? Why is the light an o’ lantern? So many questions that we need answers to.
The term jack o’ lantern actually dates back to 1663 and it had nothing to do with modern day’s spooky holiday. It originally referred to a man with a lantern, or someone who was a night watchman. After decades, the term came to mean the mysterious lights that you would see at night over swamps and marshes.
As lore around the “night watchman” lights changed through generations, these ghost lights took on new names, like hinkypunks, corpse candles, fairy lights, and fools fire. These lights in swamps and bogs weren’t ghosts though… there was actually a scientific explanation.
Gases from decomposing plant matter would seep up through the moist ground and ignite as they came into contact with electricity or heat. We know this now, but people back in the day didn’t have an explanation. In Ireland, we have records as far back as the 1500s that attribute these lights to a grumpy old guy named Jack. And there was more to that story…
Grumpy and Stingy jack lived out in the swamp. One night, he got tired of drinking on his own so he invited the devil out for a glass. Stingy Jack didn’t want to foot the bill for the devil’s liquor though, so he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin.
Stay with me here, apparently, 16th-century Irish lore can get a little weird.
The devil did so, but instead of paying the bill with that coin, Jack decided to skip out on the tab entirely. He kept the devil as a coin in his pocket along with a silver cross, which kept the devil from shifting back to his original form. Jack kept him there for some time, but did eventually let the devil loose.
Not before Jack forced the devil not to take revenge on him, and he even made the devil promise to not take his soul when he passed over to the other side.
Later on, Jack would bother the devil again and convince him to climb a tree to get some fruit. But while he was up there, Jack would carve a cross in the trunk so the devil couldn’t get back down. Jack would free him, but again make him promise not to take revenge and not to claim his soul.
When Swampy Jack did die, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven, and the devil wouldn’t let him into hell – keeping his word. Instead, the devil gave Jack a burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to find his own hell. Jack put the coal in a turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since according to legend. In Ireland, when ghost lights are seen in swamps, they are thought to be Jacks improvised lantern moving about. These lights were named “Jack of the Lantern,” turning eventually into “Jack O’Lantern.”
And that’s the legend.
Jack O’Lanterns stayed persistent across all the years, moving from a scary story into seasonal decorations in the late 19th century.