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A traditional jack-o'-lantern, made from a pumpkin, lit from within by a candle
A jack-o'-lantern in the shape of the Wikipedia logo

A jack-o'-lantern is a carved pumpkin, or turnip, associated chiefly with the holiday of Halloween, and was named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern. In a jack-o'-lantern, the top is cut off to form a lid, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved out of the pumpkin's rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source is placed within before the lid is closed. This is traditionally a flame or electric candle, though pumpkin lights featuring various colors and flickering effects are also marketed specifically for this purpose. It is common to see jack-o'-lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations during Hallowe'en.


An assortment of carved pumpkins

The term jack-o'-lantern is in origin a term for the visual phenomenon ignis fatuus (lit., "foolish fire") known as a will-o'-the-wisp in English folklore. Used especially in East Anglia, its earliest known use dates to the 1660s.[1] The term "will-o'-the-wisp" uses "wisp" (a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch) and the proper name "Will": thus, "Will-of-the-torch." The term jack-o'-lantern is of the same construction: "Jack of [the] lantern." See Origin: Folklore below.


A traditional Irish Jack-o'-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland
Modern carving of a Cornish Jack-o'-Lantern made from a turnip

The origin of Jack o' Lantern carving is uncertain. The carving of vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world, with gourds being the earliest plant species domesticated by humans c. 10,000 years ago, primarily for their carving potential.[2] Gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Maori over 700 years ago,[3] with the Māori word for a gourd also used to describe a lampshade.[4] There is a common belief that the custom of carving jack-o'-lanterns at Hallowe'en originated in Ireland, where turnips, mangelwurzel or beets were supposedly used.[5][6] According to historian Ronald Hutton, in the 19th century, Hallowe'en guisers in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands commonly used jack-o'-lanterns made from turnips and mangelwurzels.[7] They were "often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins".[7] In these areas, 31 October–1 November was known as Samhain and it was seen as a time when spirits or fairies were particularly active. Hutton says that they were also used at Hallowe'en in Somerset (see Punkie Night) during the 19th century.[7] Christopher Hill also writes that "jack-o'-lanterns were carved out of turnips or squashes and were literally used as lanterns to guide guisers on All Hallows' Eve."[8] Some claim that the Jack-o'-lanterns originated with All Saints' Day (1 November)/All Souls' Day (2 November) and represented Christian souls in purgatory.[9] Bettina Arnold writes that they were sometimes set on windowsills to keep the harmful spirits out of one's home.[10] An 1834 account of a Halloween night at a house in Ireland makes no mention of any jack-o'-lantern or carved vegetables acting as lanterns,[11] nor does Robert Burns mention them in his famous poem "Halloween".[12] Thomas Johnson Westropp does not mention them in Folklore of Clare (1910)[13] and an "internationally accepted authority on Irish folk tradition", Seán Ó Súilleabháin, does not mention them in Irish Folk Custom and Belief (1967).[14] So despite the commonly held belief that the carving of the Jack-O'-Lantern was an ancient Irish custom, no scholarly research into Irish mythology and customs includes a contemporary reference to such a practice being present during Samhain.

There is however evidence that turnips were used to carve what was called a "Hoberdy's Lantern" in Worcestershire, England at the end of the 18th century. The folklorist Jabez Allies recalls how

In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a " Hoberdy's Lantern," by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style ; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night.[15]

In literature and popular culture[edit]

The application of the term to carved pumpkins in American English is first attested in 1834.[16] The carved pumpkin lantern association with Hallowe'en is recorded in 1866 in the U.S.[17] In the United States, the carved pumpkin was first associated with the harvest season in general, long before it became an emblem of Hallowe'en.[18] In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o'-lantern as part of the festivities.[18] The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born in Massachusetts in 1807, wrote "The Pumpkin" (1850):[19]

Oh!—fruit loved of boyhood!—the old days recalling,

When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

Cornish folklorist Dr. Thomas Quiller Couch (d. 1884) recorded the use of the term in a rhyme used in Polperro, Cornwall, in conjunction with Joan the Wad, the Cornish version of Will-o'-the-wisp. The people of Polperro regarded them both as pixies. The rhyme goes:[20]

Jack o' the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather's bad.


A commercial "R.I.P." pattern
Hallowe'en jack-o'-lantern
Pumpkin projected onto the wall

The story of the Jack-O'-lantern comes in many variants and is similar to the story of Will-o'-the-wisp[21] retold in different forms across Western Europe,[22] with variations being present in the folklore of Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Italy and Spain.[23] An old Irish folk tale from the mid-19th Century tells of Stingy Jack, a lazy yet shrewd farmer who uses a cross to trap the Devil. One story[24] says that Jack tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree, and once he was up there Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark, so that the Devil couldn't get down. Another tale[citation needed] says that Jack put a key in the Devil's pocket while he was suspended upside-down.

Another version[citation needed] of the story says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met the Devil, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (the Devil could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin/Devil disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it. The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack's wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped.

In both folktales, Jack only lets the Devil go when he agrees never to take his soul. After a while the thief died, as all living things do. Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, the Devil had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from hell as well. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of hell, that would never burn out. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which were his favorite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as "Jack of the Lantern", or Jack-o'-lantern.

Jack-o-lanterns were also a way of protecting your home against the Undead. Superstitious people used them specifically to ward away vampires. They thought this because it was said that the Jack-o-lantern's light was a way of identifying vampires and, once their identity was known, they would give up their hunt for you.[citation needed]


In the Grim Adventures Halloween special Billy and Mandy's Jacked-Up Halloween, Jack was depicted as the village trickster of Endsville long before the series' events. Despite being pleasant, he constantly pulled pranks on the villagers, bad enough to make them send a prank gift to their queen and frame Jack for it. She sent a knight to his home and do away with him. When Grim came to reap him, Jack refused to go and managed to take Grim's scythe, only giving it back in exchange for eternal life. When he was granted it however, Grim, who does not like being tricked, decided to cut Jack's head off to make sure he doesn't bother the villagers anymore. Not long afterwards, Jack had found a pumpkin to use as a new head, giving him the name Jack o' Lantern, though he was shunned from society and only came out every Halloween night to play his pranks.

Pumpkin craft[edit]

Pumpkin craft for Halloween.

Sections of the pumpkin are cut out to make holes, often depicting a face, which may be either cheerful, scary, or comical. More complex carvings are becoming more commonly seen. Popular figures, symbols, and logos are some that can now be seen used on pumpkins. A variety of tools can be used to carve and hollow out the gourd, ranging from simple knives and spoons to specialized instruments, typically sold in holiday sections of North American grocery stores. Printed stencils can be used as a guide for increasingly complex designs. After carving, a light source (traditionally a candle) is placed inside the pumpkin and the top is put back into place. The light is normally inserted to illuminate the design from the inside and add an extra measure of spookiness. Sometimes a chimney is carved, too. It is possible to create surprisingly artistic designs, be they simple or intricate in nature.

Picking out and carving pumpkins for Halloween.

World records[edit]

A sugar cookie decorated with frosting in the shape of a jack-o'-lantern.

For a long time, Keene, New Hampshire held the world record for most jack-o'-lanterns carved and lit in one place. The Life is good company teamed up with Camp Sunshine, a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families, to break the record. A record was set on October 21, 2006 when 30,128 jack-o'-lanterns were simultaneously lit on Boston Common.[25] Highwood, Illinois tried to set the record on October 31, 2011 with an unofficial count of 30,919, but did not follow the Guinness regulations so the record did not count. Guinness still holds Boston as the world record holder.[26][27]

The world's largest jack-o'-lantern was carved from the then-world's-largest pumpkin on October 31, 2005 in Northern Cambria, Pennsylvania, United States by Scott Cully. The pumpkin was grown by Larry Checkon and weighed 1,469 lb (666.33 kg) on October 1, 2005 at the Pennsylvania Giant Pumpkin Growers Association Weigh-off.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Jack o'lantern (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 9 May 2013. 
  2. ^ Paris, H.S. (1989). "Historical records, origins, and development of the edible cultivar groups of Cucurbita pepo (Cucurbitaceae)". Economic Botany, 43 (4): 423–443. 
  3. ^ "Te Ao Hou - The Maori Magazine June 1962". National Library of New Zealand. Retrieved 2013-10-16. 
  4. ^ Buse, Jasper; Raututi Taringa (1995). Cook Islands Maori Dictionary. p. 537. 
  5. ^ The Oxford companion to American food and drink p.269. Oxford University Press, 2007. Retrieved February 17, 2011
  6. ^ They continue to be popular choices today as carved lanterns in Northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although the British purchased a million pumpkins for Hallowe'en in 2004. "Pumpkins Passions", BBC, 31 October 2005. Retrieved on 19 October 2006. "Turnip battles with pumpkin for Hallowe'en", BBC, 28 October 2005. Retrieved 23 September 2007.
  7. ^ a b c Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press, 1996. pp.382-383
  8. ^ Hill, Christopher. Holidays and Holy Nights. Quest Books, 2003. p.56
  9. ^ Rogers, Nicholas. Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press, 2003. p.57
  10. ^ Arnold, Bettina (2001-10-31). "Bettina Arnold – Halloween Lecture: Halloween Customs in the Celtic World". Halloween Inaugural Celebration. University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee: Center for Celtic Studies. Retrieved 2007-10-16. 
  11. ^ "The Irish Peasants - Halloween". The Dublin Penny Journal. 25 October 1834. Retrieved 2013-09-24. 
  12. ^ Burns, Robert. "Halloween". Poems, Songs, and Letters: Being the Complete Works of Robert Burns. Retrieved 2013-09-24. 
  13. ^ Westropp, T.J. (1910). Folklore of Clare - A Folklore survey of County Clare. 
  14. ^ Ó Súilleabháin, Seán (1967). Irish Folk Custom and Belief. 
  15. ^ Allies, Jabez (1856). The British, Roman, and Saxon antiquities and folklore of Worcestershire. London: J.R. Smith. p. 423. 
  16. ^ "Jack-o'-lantern," Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest citation is from 1663.
  17. ^ Daily News (Kingston, Ontario), November 1, 1866: The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle. Agnes Carr Sage, "Halloween Sports and Customs," Harper's Young People, October 27, 1885, p. 828:
    It is an ancient British custom to light great bonfires (Bone-fire to clear before Winter froze the ground) on Hallowe'en, and carry blazing fagots about on long poles; but in place of this, American boys delight in the funny grinning jack-o'-lanterns made of huge yellow pumpkins with a candle inside.
  18. ^ a b "The Day We Celebrate: Thanksgiving Treated Gastronomically and Socially," The New York Times, November 24, 1895, p. 27. "Odd Ornaments for Table," The New York Times, October 21, 1900, p. 12.
  19. ^ Whittier, John Greenleaf. "The Pumpkin".
  20. ^ Jacqueline Simpson, Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press, 2000
  21. ^ Jack Santino All around the year: holidays and celebrations in American life, p.157 University of Illinois Press, 1995
  22. ^ Allies, Jabez (1856). The British, Roman, and Saxon antiquities and folklore of Worcestershire. London: J.R. Smith. p. 430. 
  23. ^ Newell, William Wells (1 January 1904). "The Ignis Fatuus, Its Character and Legendary Origin". Journal of American Folk-Lore 17. 
  24. ^ Mark Hoerrner (2006). "History of the Jack-O-Lantern". buzzle.com. Retrieved 2007-05-09. 
  25. ^ Michael Levenson and Kathy McCabe, A love in Common for pumpkins, The Boston Globe, October 22, 2006, p. B6.
  26. ^ "most lit Jack-o'-lanterns displayed". Retrieved 2012-10-31. 
  27. ^ "Highwood sets pumpkin-carving record - Highland Park News". Highlandpark.suntimes.com. Retrieved 2012-10-30. 
  28. ^ "Largest Jack O'Lantern". Guinness World Records 2009. Archived from the original on 2011-05-18. Retrieved October 10, 2009. 

External links[edit]