The Origins Of The Halloween Jack-O’-Lantern

There are many customs surrounding the annual October holiday of Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve, the quasi-Christian festival incorporating significant elements of the traditional Irish and Celtic celebration of Samhain or Feis Shamhna, the mythologically-important date marking the transition between the winter and summer halves of the year in the Gaelic calendar. One of the more interesting practices associated with the event is the use of improvised “lanterns” made from hallowed-out pumpkins, or large turnips and swedes, into which are carved two eyes, a nose and a mouth, normally illuminated from within by a candle (in contemporary use the organic versions are frequently replaced with manufactured facsimiles using plastic, metal and resin). Known as a Jack-o’-Lantern or Jack O’Lantern in the United States many believe them to be thoroughly American in origin though in fact their ultimate inspiration is far older than the European settlement of North America.

The name itself derives from an English language folk-expression, jack-o’-lantern (jack-o’-the-lantern), which was applied to the scientific phenomenon known as ignis fatuus or marsh-gas, an atmospheric ghost fire or spark that can be seen by night or in low light conditions, especially over bogs or marshes. This is perhaps more commonly known as a will-o’-the-wisp in English-speaking countries, where “wisp” is a small bundle of sticks or straw used as a torch while will is the personal name Will, a diminutive or peasant version of the Norman-French William. This name was applied to several otherwise anonymous characters in the medieval folklore of England, hence “Will of the wisp”. As you might expect the full form of the expression jack-o’-lantern was “Jack of the lantern“, and this was first recorded in the wetlands of the East Anglia region of south-eastern Britain during the 1600s, though its use probably precedes that date by many decades.

Jack, of course, was simply a personal name, one that was so popular in Middle English that it became something of a generic term for a man or youth, or indeed for some animals and objects thought to have male-like qualities, and is still encountered in such expressions as a “Jack of all trades“, “Jack of clubs” or “Jack-in-the-box” as well as folklore characters like Jack the Giant-killer (Jack was the familiar or slang form of the also popular John, probably through the Norman-French Jackin or Jankin “Little John”, before it became a name in its own right; it is one of the ultimate sources of the term Jackeen, a dismissive nickname for an inhabitant of Dublin city). A modern equivalent would be something like a lad or chap, which in this case would give a pleasingly contemporary, “dude with the torch“. Since night-watchmen were frequently called “Jack of/with the lantern” in the pre-industrial south of England the expression probably suggested itself to the inhabitants of the fenlands of East Anglia as a way of describing the seemingly supernatural marsh-gas.

The term was imported to Ireland by British colonists during the Tudor or Elizabethan Conquests of the 16th and 17th centuries, many of whom migrated from the rural southern and eastern coastal regions of England. There the appearance and description of the ignis fatuus was given an explanatory tale amongst the settler communities, one which spread with the process of colonisation across the country, paralleling the displacement of the native Irish language and culture. The earliest recorded versions, the majority in Hiberno-English (the English language as spoken in Ireland), date to the 1800s and follow the same broad pattern, no doubt inspired by the Medieval Christian legends of the “Wandering Jew” which were particularly popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as Faust-like tales from the Continent.

Turnip lanterns or jack-o'-lanterns from Scotland
Turnip lanterns or jack-o’-lanterns from Scotland

A long time ago in Ireland there was a man known as “Stingy Jack” (alternatively, “Drunk Jack” or “Jack the Smith“; an Irish language version related to the latter gives us the name Seán an Tincéar “John the Tinker”, though he is usually portrayed in a more positive light and his opponent is normally Death rather than Satan), a sly alcoholic known for his deceitful nature. One night the Devil heard the tale of Jack’s wicked deeds and unconvinced or envious of the claims he went to discover the truth for himself. That night Jack was wandering inebriated through the countryside when he came upon a body prostrate on the road. The body with an eerie grimace on its face turned out to be the Devil himself. Jack was convinced that his life was over and that the Devil was here to punish him for his past actions. However he made one last request, pleading that he be allowed a sip of ale before he was taken to Hell. Agreeing to the plea the Devil took Jack to a local public house or tavern and supplied him with many alcoholic beverages. Upon quenching his thirst, Jack surprised the Devil by asking him to pay for the drinks. Using his sly tongue and charm Jack convinced the Devil to transform himself into a silver coin so the debt could be paid. Jack purposely shoved the now transmogrified Devil into his pocket, which also contained a crucifix. This prevented the Devil from returning to his normal form until he agreed to spare Jack’s soul for ten years.

Ten years later to the date when Jack originally struck his deal, he encountered the Devil again and in the same circumstances. As the Devil prepared to take him to Hell, Jack asked if he could have an apple to assuage his hunger. Beguiled by Jack’s wiles the Devil agreed climbing a nearby apple tree to pick its fruit for the man, Jack quickly carving a crucifix into the trunk to trap him. In order to secure his freedom the Devil agreed to never take Jack’s soul, leaving him in peace.

When Jack’s licentious lifestyle finally caught up with him he was denied entry to Heaven because of his past sins. He then proceeded to the gates of Hell and begged to be admitted there rather than be condemned to the existence of a lost soul. The Devil refused due to his agreement with Jack. However to warn others he gave Jack a perpetual glowing ember or piece of coal from Hell, leaving him to roam the world, denied access to Heaven or Hell, with only the hellfire to light his way (in some tales, carried inside a hollowed turnip or swede). Because of this he gained a new name, Jack of the Lantern (or Jack McLantern in quasi-Gaelicised versions), and became associated with souls trapped in Purgatory and the nominally Christian church holiday of All Hallows’ Eve and the ensuing All Hallows or All Saints’ Day (the 31st of October and the 1st of November). The phenomenon of ignis fatuus was said to be a sign of his presence, the mysterious light his lantern, inevitably gaining the description of Jack-o’-lantern.

As indicated above, this tale was almost entirely restricted to the Anglophone regions of Ireland, with relatively little influence on native folklore. However it seems at some stage to have been melded with a long-standing and typically practical peasant custom of using vegetable matter to hold or carry burning materials, whether as a type of “tallow candle”, or simply glowing wisps straw and hot coals. While this has been suggested as an indigenous Irish tradition, also practiced in Scotland, references also come from early 19th century Britain, where youths along the south-west coast were said to hollow out turnips, with carved eyes, nose and mouth, into which candle stumps were placed. These were used to frighten unwary travellers or neighbours and were known as “Hoberdy’s lantern” or “Hobany’s lantern“, “Hob-and-his-lantern” being another English folkname for ignis fatuus. The debate then is whether English settlers brought it to Scotland or Ireland, or whether, and more probably, the custom was already present in those nations.

Certainly in Ireland the carving of turnips, wild beets and later potatoes into human caricatures, with or without inner lights, was particularly common around All Hallows’ Eve or Oíche Shamhna in the Irish language. However it should be noted that these “turnips” were originally a domestic vegetable now known in modern Ireland as a swede, that is the white root of a yellow-flowered plant, Brassica rapa. When the cultivation of the Swedish turnip or swede (rutabaga), the yellow root of the related plant Brassica napus, was introduced to Ireland and Scotland in the late 1700s and early 1800s it acquired the name of the native plant in the English language amongst the anglicised and native-speaking peasantry. In Irish and Scottish usage “turnip” came to mean solely the Swedish turnip or swede, while the original turnip came to be known as a swede (confusingly of course in Britain, the United States and elsewhere the turnip remained the name of the indigenous European vegetable).

Originally then, the Gaelic vegetable-carving tradition applied to the white turnip and wild beet, both notably small and suitable to the concept of an ever-burning ember in an improvised lantern as found in the Stingy Jack legend. With the adoption of the Swedish turnip or swede in the 19th century, a welcome supplement to the ubiquitous potato, Irish and Scottish communities added this not unfamiliar vegetable to their folk-traditions. In both cases the hollowed vegetables were particularly prominent during the period of Halloween or Samhain, and made decorative by simply carving a slit-mouth and eyes to approximate a human face or skull. This almost certainly continued a custom of head-veneration amongst the Celtic peoples which survived the assimilation of the Christian religion in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and remained in force, albeit greatly diluted and debased, until the pre-modern era.

Naturally the custom of fashioning lantern-holders from organic materials was carried by Gaelic- and English-speaking immigrants from Ireland and Scotland (and perhaps directly from England) to the United States in the 1700s and 1800s, particularly after An Gorta Mór or the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, where it was adapted to local conditions. Larger, more impressive, and easier to work with, the native pumpkin became the vegetable (technically, fruit) of choice for the new Irish-American populations. What the original Irish or Scottish language name for these objects may have been, if indeed there was one, is now unknown (the phenomenon of ignis fatuus had several names in Irish and Scottish one of which was tine shionnaigh “fox fire”, rather aptly for this blog). What we do know is that a common description for ignis fatuus in the New England region was jack-o’-lantern, almost certainly due to the presence of significant numbers of East Anglian and Norfolk settlers along the North American seaboard. It was somewhere in this melting pot of languages and cultures that the organic lanterns of the Gaelic immigrant populations gained a new name. Just as Frankenstein’s monster became “Frankenstein” in popular speech so Jack’s lantern became a “jack-o’-lantern“.

From the above we can see that the modern October custom of the hollowed-out pumpkin- or turnip-head with its carved human features, like much of Halloween itself, derives from the ancient traditions of the Celtic-speaking peoples of Ireland and Scotland, overlaid with the accrued effects of Christianisation and Anglo-British colonialism amongst the Gaelic nations in the Medieval and pre-industrial eras and given renewed hybrid form in the United States.

Glossary:

All Hollows or All Saints’ Day: An annual Christian holiday celebrated on the 1st of November by the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant denominations, and on the first Sunday after Pentecost in Eastern Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in honour of all the saints, known and unknown. The religious celebration begins at Vespers (the sunset prayer) on the evening of October 31st and ends at the close of November 1st. It is followed by All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. Partially derived from a rival Celtic festival, known as Samhain in Ireland, which it purposely subsumed.

Halloween, Hallowe’en, All Hallows’ Evening, All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve: An annual Christian celebration observed in a number of countries on the 31st of October, the eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the period in the religious calendar dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers. Partially derived from a rival Celtic festival, known as Samhain in Ireland, which it purposely subsumed.

Samhain: “Summer’s end”, the most important date in the pre-Christian native Irish and Scottish calendars, also observed elsewhere in the Celtic world, marking the transition from the summer half of the year to the winter half. Sometimes regarded as the “Celtic New Year”. Technically the hours between sunset on October the 31st and sunset on November 1st (the Gaelic day ran from evening-to-evening). As well as a period of communal and regional festivals, many with religious, political or mercantile significance, Samhain was noted for its supernatural occurrences and important mythological events. Much of its significance was appropriated by proselytizing Christianity.

Oíche Shamhna: “Night of Samhain”, from sunset on October 31st to sunrise on November 1st. The most important part of the Samhain festival, the time when the principal feasts were held, bonfires were lit and great mythological stories took place. Much of its significance was appropriated by proselytizing Christianity.

Lá Samhna: “Day of Samhain”, from sunrise on November 1st to sunset on the same day. Principally a period of market-festivals, trading and recovering from the night before. Much of its significance was appropriated by proselytizing Christianity.

Feis Shamhna: “Festival, Feast of Samhain”, the celebrations over Samhain as a whole (lasting three or nine days) or specifically the feast on the evening of October 31st. The literal meaning of feis is “to spend the night, to sleep”, sometimes with a sexual connotation. Much of its significance was appropriated by proselytizing Christianity.

Mí na Samhna: “Month of Samhain”, that is November.

Jack: A proper name derived from the diminutive or familiar form of the Norman-French Jackin or Jankin “Little John”. It became a very popular male name in late Medieval Britain, so much so that it became a virtual synonym for a “man, youth, boy; an object or animal perceived to be masculine in nature“. The forename was brought by British colonists to Ireland, influencing amongst other things the nickname for the inhabitants of Dublin city in Hiberno-English: a Jackeen.

Jack-o’-Lantern (Jack-o’-the-lantern, Jack O’Lantern, Jack-a-lantern, lantern-Jack, etc.): Originally “Jack of the lantern”, a night-watchman in pre-industrial Britain. Applied to the natural phenomenon of ignis fatuus by the inhabitants of south-east Britain, specifically East Anglia, during the 17th century and probably earlier. The description was carried by British settlers from the east of England to Ireland and North America, where it was used to describe the same effect in marshy or swampy areas. In the United States it developed into a term to describe the carved organic-lanterns (watermelons, etc.) of the Irish- and Scottish-American communities that latterly became associated with the Halloween period.

Seán na gealaí: “John of the moon”, an Irish language folkname for ignis fatuus or marsh-gas, an atmospheric ghost fire or spark that can be seen by night or in low light conditions, especially over bogs or marshes. More commonly known as a will-o’-the-wisp in English-speaking countries. The first half of the expression may well be influenced by the English use of Jack (John) in the name folkterm Jack-o’-the-lantern.

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4 comments

  1. excellent article seamus. Do you know if referring to Dublin Natives as ‘Jackeens’ stems from a similar source re: the anglo-normans.

    1. Great question! The subject is very controversial, with lots of competing theories. It seems that in Ireland “Jack” became a slang word for a city- or town-dweller. Perhaps because so many Jacks existed amongst the settler population! It then took on the overtones of a ruffian or scoundrel (gaining the -een ending from Gaelic usage or influence in Hiberno-English). Later, in the 1800s and and very early 1900s, the word was reinterpreted to mean someone overly sympathetic to British rule, as in the inhabitants of Dublin. This was related, in folklore at least, with the Union Jack flag and John Bull (“Jack”). So somewhere along that twisty line of history Dubliners became “Jackeens”.

  2. Wow! I knew that the celebration of Halloween came from Samhain, but I didn’t know that jack-o-lanterns were also Irish. (I should have known, the “o” gives it away.) Another thing to be proud of!

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