Have you ever seen a flickering light, perhaps over a foggy river or hovering above a misty hilltop, that seems to recede the closer you get to its source? For hundreds of years, this phenomenon was referred to by several names: Will O’ the Wisp, Ignius Fatuus, and, Jack O’Lantern. In 1750, a printed mention of a Jack-O-Lantern referred to a nightwatchman toting a lantern. All of these incarnations, including our modern use as a fun, often comic, Halloween decoration, actually has very ancient Celtic origins.
The old folktale goes like this.
Jack, an Irish blacksmith, had the misfortune of running into the Devil in a pub on Halloween. Jack had drank a bit too much that evening and the Devil thought him easy prey, but the clever trickster made a bargain with the Devil. In exchange for one last drink, Jack offered up his soul. Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence that Jack could use to buy their drinks. The Devil changed his form to make payment to the bartender, but Jack pocketed the coin in a bag with a silver cross with the knowledge that the cross would prevent the Devil from changing back. Once in his purse, Jack only freed the Devil after he agreed not to claim his soul for ten years.
Ten years later, the Devil met Jack walking on a country road and told him that he was there to collect his soul. Jack, feigned compliance, but asked the Devil if he would first climb an apple tree and get him an apple. The Devil, having nothing to lose, climbed the tree, but as he reached for the 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 until he had agreed never to claim Jack’s soul.
Some years later, Jack died and went to Heaven. But he was dismissed from St. Peter’s gate because he was too much of an unsavory figure to allow in. He then went to Hades, but the Devil was bound never to claim his soul, and so would not allow him to enter. Instead, he sent him away with only a burning ember to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been doomed to roam the Earth in darkness ever since. The Irish began to refer to his damned soul and ghostly light as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’ Lantern.”
It has been believed for centuries that on Hallow’s Eve, evil spirits roam the Earth, “Stingy Jack” among them. For hundreds of years on that frightening night, the Irish carved scary faces into potatoes and turnips and placed them in windows and doorway to scare away Jack and other spirits. When the Irish immigrated to the United States, they brought their tradition with them, with one amendment. They discovered that pumpkins had the perfect surface for carving the best frightening faces.
Glowing Jack-O-Lanterns came much later, most likely because of an article published in the New York Times in 1900 which recommended lighting a pumpkin as part of the festivities. The suggestion, of course, caught on and now millions of us scoop out pumpkin “guts,” put a candle in its hollowed-out interior, and wait for our ghosts and goblins to arrive.
What was the original reason for “dressing up” on Halloween? Apparently evil spirits aren’t all that bright. A simple mask was thought to be able to fool those troublemakers into believing we are not who they think we are. And… maybe we’re not.