The history of the Jack-o'-Lantern

Posted by on Friday, October 23rd, 2015 at 11:31am.

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Will you have a jack-o’-lantern on the front porch or window of your home?  There will be thousands of pumpkins glowing in neighbourhoods all over North America on Hallowe’en Night.

But where did this strange custom of carving pumpkins really come from?

Why do we scoop out the flesh and carve a monstrous or funny face then light a candle inside and close the lid to experience the full effect of our creation?

First Origins

The name “Jack O Lantern”, which is the official name of a hollow pumpkin with a light inside, came from the peat bogs of Eastern England where often a strange light could be seen flickering above them.  This eerie visual phenomenon was referred to will-o’-the wisp, or jack-o’-lantern.

The carving of vegetables, particularly gourds or turnips, has been done by humans as far back as 10,000 years ago.  Lanterns were created by carving out gourds by the Aboriginal people of Australian and New Zealand as well, more than 700 years ago. Their name for the lantern created in this fashion was the equivalent of “lampshade”.

European History

However, we believe that this Hallowe’en tradition may have begun in the 19th Century in Scotland and parts of Ireland, in conjunction with the Druid festival of Samhain.  This was when ghosts and spirits would rise.  There is conflicted history about whether these lanterns carved with ghoulish faces were to frighten away evil spirits or to represent the souls of the dead.  The latter is a suggestion based on the proximity of Hallowe’en being at the same time as All Saints Day on the Christian calendar.  Like Christmas, Hallowe’en evolved from a combination of a pagan holiday and a religious holiday.

Early documentation from 1837 suggests a pub in Limerick, Ireland held a carving competition with a prize for the finest “Jack McLantern”. Further, turnips were also used to create a “Hoberdy’s Lantern” in England.  Young boys were said to create them with a candle inside, and place them on hedges to scare away travelers sneaking through the countryside in the dead of night.

Another Irish legend about “Stingy Jack” suggests that a man named Jack, who had a drink with the devil but was too cheap to pay, used trickery and deceit against him.  When he died many years later, the devil wouldn’t let him into hell and God wouldn’t let him into heaven so he was doomed to roam the afterlife with a lantern.

In North America

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” featuring Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen is an immortal story.  Adaptations of this often suggest there was a pumpkin or jack-o’-lantern where the horseman’s head should have been and in the original legend, a smashed pumpkin is discovered near where Crane’s hat was found the next morning.

A carved pumpkin in relation with Hallowe’en was documented here in Canada in a November 1 issue of a Kingston, ON newspaper, which described youngsters of the city sacrificing pumpkins to make transparent faces as part of Hallowe’en merry making.

It was thought also that pumpkins with fire inside may have been a North American substitute for the great Hallowe’en bonfires of England were young men would carry torches at the end of long poles.

A carved pumpkin once had more to do with harvest celebrations in the United States, which transpires the fourth Thursday of November.  The brightly illuminated pumpkins evolved into Hallowe’en decorations.

World’s Largest Jack-o’-Lantern

On October 31, 2005 in Northern Cambria, Pennsylvania, the world’s largest carved pumpkin was carved by Scott Cully. It weighed 1,469 lbs.

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