Possibly the single most popular Halloween symbol, the contemporary jack-o’-lantern usually refers to a pumpkin carved into a grinning or malicious face, used for decoration in American homes. In Europe (especially Ireland and Scotland), a jack-o’-lantern is usually a carved turnip, and, unlike its American counterpart, is actually carried as a lantern (hung from a stick or string) on Halloween night. Jack-o’-lanterns are used not just extensively for decoration at Halloween, but are also featured in Halloween games, while pumpkin seeds figure in some fortune-telling rituals, and of course pumpkin-flavored foods are popular as well. Jack-o’-lanterns might also be carved from other fruits and vegetables, including apples and squash.
Folklorist Jack Santino notes that the jack-o’-lantern embodies both harvest and the character of the trickster. In its trickster aspect, jack-o’-lantern comes from a long line of European trickster mythology. Some of the stories of Jack O'Lantern resemble those of Jack O'Kent, a legendary hero and trickster. In Britain jack-o’-lantern is another name for Will-o’-the-wisp, and his name is also sometimes spelled Jack-a-Lantern and Jacky Lantern. Although both jack-o’-lantern and will-o’-the-wisp usually refer to the mysterious lights encountered around swamps and bogs, Jack is sometimes considered to be a pixie, and is the subject of this rhyme:
Jack-o’-the-lantern! Joan the Wad, Who tickled the maid and made her mad! Light me home, the weather's bad.
Jack-o’-lanterns frequently haunted swamps and bog areas in Britain. These lights are properly called ignis fatuus (meaning “foolish” or “false fire”) or marsh gas, and are given off by rotting vegetation and animals; ghostly lights that appeared specifically around graveyards were called Corpse Candles. In folklore, these lights are sometimes believed to be the souls of sinners condemned to walk the earth eternally; in coastal areas, they're believed to be the souls of men who have drowned and never received proper burial.
Jack-o’-lanterns encountered in the wild were mischievous, malevolent entities; they might cause a horse to throw a cart, or even give chase. The bobbing lights must never be followed, for they'll attempt to lead any foolish human to death in a deep, watery swamp or over a cliff. In Britain (where jack-o’-lanterns were sometimes called bogies), there was only one sure protection against a jack-o’-lantern: First any lanterns must be extinguished (before they were dashed to the ground by the Jack), then the unlucky souls must throw themselves to the ground and hold their breath. In America (where it was often believed that mysterious lights were the products of malicious witches), if one encountered a “jack-malantern,” the protective ritual was to turn one's pockets inside-out, draw a circle in the dirt and make a cross on the ground, then recite, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, drive these witches away with their evil jack-ma-lanterns.” Other means of protection included stabbing a knife into the ground, and throwing oneself to the ground, with eyes shut, ears plugged and breath held.
British variants of the name included Peg-a-lantern, Hob-with-a-lantern, Hobardy's lantern, Lantern Men, Kit-with-a-canstik, Kitty-candlestick, Joan-in-the-wad, Jacket-a-wad, and Gillion-a-burnt-tail; the Scottish also call them “Uist Lights.” One Scottish story was that a girl from Benbecula misbehaved, was cursed for her wrongdoings and disappeared, only to have her spirit become a “great fire.” In Switzerland, the lights are thought to be the soul of a miller deceased 20 years before.
Certain jack-o’-lanterns have their own characteristics: Gill-of-the-burnt-tail draws a streak behind itself. If a will-o-the-wisp is seized, only a bone is left in one's grasp. A Hessian legend explains the irrwisch as the body of a dead usurer, whom the devil has flayed, stuffed with straw and made fly as a burning wisp.
The help of a jack-o'lantern can be implored with a rhyme:
Jack of the lantern, Joan of the lub Light me home, and I'll give you a crub [crumb].
After the service had been rendered, one must say, “Thank ‘ee, Jack.” In Germany they instead would say “Gelts Gott,” since by doing this the soul was released.
The mythology behind Jack-o’-lanterns is rich, and many of the stories are set on Halloween; they are also often associated with the evils of drink (in fact, Will-o’-the-wisp is sometimes described as having a “face like a brandy bottle”). Perhaps the most common one begins one Halloween night when Jack, a notorious drunk, has one too many drinks at the local pub and his soul begins to slip from his body. The devil appears to claim it, but Jack suggests they have one drink together before going. The devil tells Jack he has no money, and Jack suggests that he change himself into a sixpence, then change back after paying. The devil transforms into the coin, and Jack snatches the sixpence and puts it in his wallet, which has a silver catch in the shape of a cross, so the devil is trapped. Jack makes him promise to leave for a year, then frees him. Next Halloween, Jack runs into the devil on a lonely country road. Nearby is an apple-tree, and Jack suggests they each have an apple, but the devil says the fruit is too high up to reach. Jack suggests the devil stand on his shoulders, and when the devil does Jack whips out his pocketknife and cuts the sign of the cross on the trunk of the tree, and the devil can't come down. This time Jack makes the devil promise to leave him alone for good, and the desperate devil agrees. Before next Halloween, Jack dies and is turned away from heaven, but the devil turns him away from the gates of Hell. Jack asks for a light to find his way back, and the devil throws him a chunk of live coal from the hell furnace. Jack puts it inside the turnip he's been gnawing, and with this jack-o’-lantern he has been wandering the earth ever since.
An early African-American version of the story omits both the mention of Halloween and the use of a turnip or pumpkin for a lantern at the end; it also suggests that “when he come to a ma'sh, he done got los’, an’ he ain’ nuver fine he way out sence,” placing the mysterious light firmly in a swamp setting. The jack-o’-lantern or will-o’-the-wisp was greatly feared in the South, where it was believed that they would lure their victims to drown in bogs or rivers, or be torn apart in thorn bushes, all while exclaiming, “Aie, aie, mo gagnin toi” (“aie, aie, I have you”). The early African-Americans based their stories on European tales, and often called it “Jack-muh-lantern,” “Jacky-m-Lantuhns,” or “wuller-wups.” One legend of the jack-o’-lantern, describes it as being a hideous creature about five feet in height, with goggle eyes and a huge mouth, long hair on its body and hopping about like a gigantic grasshopper. Some African-Americans also believed that jack-o’-lanterns could come in either sex, as a “man-jacky” or a “woman-jacky.”
The Irish have a story of Billy Dawson, a rogue and drunk, who drinks so much that his nose becomes highly flammable and bursts into flames when an enemy catches it with red hot tongs. Billy's bushy beard helps fuel the fire, and now he roams the countryside, plunging into icy bogs and pools in a desperate attempt to quench the fire of his nose.
In a North Carolina version, Jack is a sharecropper working his parcel of land with the devil. He gets the devil to agree to a 50-50 split of each individual plant—“… I'll take the top of the corn and you take the bottom. …” When the devil realizes that Jack has conned him, he hurls a blinding light at Jack, and warns him never to let go of that light.
In a Welsh version, Sion Dafydd of the Arvon hills sells his soul for wealth and the power to adhere to anything. When the devil finally comes for him, he climbs into an apple-tree and the Devil is unable to take him.
In stories centering on Will-o’-the-wisp, Will is usually a blacksmith (although his name is also given as Jack). In the most common Will tale, an impoverished but wicked smith makes a deal with the devil to have money for a year. During the year, one night the smith offers an act of kindness to a traveler, and his hospitality earns him three wishes. Instead of wishing for his own salvation, he wishes that anyone who takes the bellows on his forge will be unable to let go; that anyone who sits in his chair will be unable to rise; and that anything placed in his purse will never come out unless he removes it. At the end of the year, Satan appears, and the smith tricks him into taking the bellows. Finally the smith releases Satan, only if he promises him another year. At the end of that year, Satan returns, but this time the smith tricks him into sitting in his chair, and releases him only upon promise of another year of freedom and money. Finally Satan returns, and the smith dares him to change into a sixpence; the devil does, and the smith snatches him up and places him in his purse. The smith then hammers the purse until the devil agrees to free him. Finally, when the smith dies, he's barred from both heaven and hell, and given only a lump of brimstone to light his way as he roams the earth. The Smith's name is sometimes given as Sionnach, and from this name derives the term teine Sionnachain, or “great fire.”
In a Shropshire version of the legend, Will is a blacksmith who fixes a traveler's horse's shoe. The traveler is St. Peter, and he grants Will a wish; Will chooses to live his life over. He does, and spends it drinking and gambling once again. Finally he dies and arrives at hell, but the devil tells him he has learned so much wickedness in two lifetimes that he is more than the devil's match, and he denies him entrance. St. Peter denies him entry into heaven, and finally Will returns to the devil, who reluctantly offers him only a coal from the hell-fires to warm him. Now Will wanders the moors, still practicing malice and deceit by luring innocent travelers to their doom.
Joel Chandler Harris records an African-American variation of this tale, “Jacky-Ma-Lantern” from Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. In this version the devil (or “the Bad Man”) comes for the drunken “blacksmif,” who makes a deal instead for the chair, the forge and money. When the devil returns in a year, the blacksmith traps him in the chair; a year later, he traps the devil at the forge. A year later, the devil returns and puts Jack in a bag for the trip to Hell, but on the way the devil stops to join in a Fourth of July barbecue (in a curious switch of holidays!). While the devil eats, the blacksmith escapes from the bag and puts a bull-dog in his place. When the devil arrives in Hell, his hungry imps are shocked to find the dog, which attacks them until the devil throws it out of Hell. Finally the blacksmith dies, and is denied entry into both Heaven and Hell, leaving him to hover between the two planes forever.
Zora Neale Hurston includes a version of the tale in her collection Of Mules and Men which ends with the devil tossing Jack a coal so he can start a Hell of his own.
In an American version, Jack sells his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for seven years of power. At the end of seven years, the devil comes for Jack; Jack asks him to get down an old shoe he has placed above his door, and when the devil complies, Jack nails his hand to the wall. After obtaining the devil's agreement to leave him alone, Jack releases the devil, but on the day he dies he is denied entrance to both Heaven and Hell (at Hell the devil throws a chunk of burning coal at him). Now Jack relieves the boredom of his eternal wandering by luring unwary souls to their doom.
One other American version begins with Wicked Jack the blacksmith making the deal for the chair and the hammer, but his third wish is that the large thorny bush outside his shop will pull in headfirst anyone who touches it (also in this version, the devil sends two of his sons first before coming, and he himself ends up in the bush, all within the space of a few minutes).
There are numerous other examples of trickster stories throughout Western history; earlier variants usually center on Death, rather than the devil; usually Jesus or St. Peter grants wishes to the protagonist, and typically the story notes their disappointment when the hero chooses some form of trickery over salvation. In some German variants Jack-o’-lantern becomes the Wandering Jew.
In his article “Halloween Imagery in Two Southern Settings,” Grey Gundaker suggests that the image of the jack-o’-lantern has come to have special significance among Southern African-Americans, “…because of [the] rich fund of oral tradition.” Gundaker cites uses of the jack-o’-lantern in non-seasonal African-American yard assemblages, and mentions that the phrase may have even once been transmuted into the name “Jack Mulatta.”
The practice of transforming a pumpkin into a jack-o’-lantern predates the popularity of Halloween in America: In his 1850 poem “The Pumpkin,” John Greenleaf Whittier recalls his own boyhood and pumpkins:
When wild ugly faces we carved in its skin, Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
And of course Washington Irving's famous 1820 story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” includes a pumpkin that has been mistaken for a goblin's head, suggesting it may have been a jack-o’-lantern (as indeed it is usually depicted in illustrations and adaptations). An article from 1867 refers to the jack-o’-lantern as “the pumpkin effigy,” and notes that its use (mainly in provoking scares) may have stemmed from Guy Fawkes Night practices in England. An 1885 magazine article suggests that carving Halloween jack-o’-lanterns is the American boy's version of lighting bonfires, and by 1898 —when the first Halloween book, Martha Russell Orne's Hallowe'en: How to Celebrate It appeared, jack-o’-lanterns as key elements of Halloween were firmly established.
Jack-o’-lanterns—which are sometimes accompanied by bodies made of straw, other vegetables, and rags (like a scarecrow) — are usually placed in windows or on porches of homes; prior to the use of electricity in American homes, jack-o’-lanterns were often placed over gas jets in place of the usual glass globes. On Halloween night they serve an important purpose in the practice of trick or treat, since a lit jack-o’-lantern normally signifies a home that is participating and dispensing treats. Although jack-o’-lanterns are traditionally made by carving away sections of the pumpkin to produce a grinning or fearsome face, a jack-o’-lantern may also be made by cutting or scraping away only the outer sections of the pumpkin's rind, leaving a thin layer of skin that glows when lit from within. Although the traditional jack-o’-lantern is otherwise undecorated, they may also be painted or accessorized with added, three-dimensional details.
In more recent times, jack-o’-lanterns have been featured in a number of Halloween-themed movies and television shows. The 1966 It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown played on the jack-o’-lantern's prominence as the most important icon of the holiday. Tim Burton and Henry Selick's popular The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) gave its protagonist Jack Skellington a jack-o’-lantern head, and the impish “Sam Hain” from Michael Dougherty's 2008 film release Trick ‘R Treat is revealed to have a head similar to a jack-o’-lantern. See also Neep Lanterns.