The term Jack of the Lantern first appeared in print in 1750 and referred to a night watchman or a man carrying a lantern. Previous to print, it was used to describe a strange light flickering over the marshes of Ireland. If approached, the light advanced and was always out of reach. The mysterious occurrence is also known as will o’ the wisp and ignis fatuus, Gaelic for foolish fire. However, its legendary status reaches far back into Irish folklore with a story of a stingy drunkard named Jack.
Jack, an Irish blacksmith, had the misfortune of running into the Devil in a pub on Halloween. Jack had imbibed a bit too much that evening and was about to fall prey to the Devil, but the quick thinking trickster made a bargain with the Devil, nonetheless. In exchange for one last drink, Jack offered up his soul. The Devil changed his form into a sixpence in which to make payment to the bartender, but Jack pocketed the coin in a bag with a silver cross with the knowledge that the Devil couldn’t revert form. Once under Jack’s thumb, and in his purse, the Devil agreed not to come for Jack’s soul for another ten years.
Ten years later, the Devil came across Jack walking on a country road and explained to him that he was there to collect Jack’s soul. Not ready to go, Jack, pretending to comply, asked the Devil if he would climb an apple tree first and give him an apple. The Devil, thinking he had nothing to lose, climbed the tree, but as he was plucking the requested apple, Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross in the tree’s trunk. The Devil was unable to come back down and Jack procured an agreement from him. The Devil would never take his soul.
Years later, Jack finally died. He went to Heaven, but was dismissed from the gates due to his drinking, tricking, and miserly ways. He then went to Hell, but was denied entrance because the Devil remembered his promise. Jack asked, “But where am I to go?” And the Devil replied, “Back to where you came from”.
The way back was dark and windy, so Jack pleaded with the Devil to at least grant him light in which to find his way. The Devil, in a magnanimous un-Devil like manner, tossed Jack an ember from the fires of Hell. Jack shielded the ember in a turnip he’d been eating and left Hell to wander back.
Ever since, Jack has been doomed to wander in the darkness alone, and his name and lantern are synonymous with a damned soul.
The fear of souls like Jack’s venturing back to the warmth of their previous homes on Halloween spawned a custom that is carried on today. Originally, Irish villagers, concerned about the possibility of visits from past occupants, would dress in costume to frighten away ghosts. They also left food outside the door to appease the spirits and carved or painted faces on turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, or beets to place in windows or doors in order to chase away ghosts with the symbol of a damned soul.
The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800’s prompted a massive immigration to the Americas. With the Irish, came their beliefs and traditions, including the use of a jack o’ lantern. The Irish discovered that turnips were not readily available in the Americas and substituted the vegetable with pumpkins instead.