People have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween for centuries and not just from pumpkins but mainly from turnips or root vegetables.
The thought behind the tradition amongst different cultures is that it warns off bad spirits and vampires and protects the home. It was thought that the jack-o’-lantern’s light would identify a vampire and that they would then leave people alone.
Many believe the practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” It would seem on Halloween 1835, during when Irish Immigrants went to the US, a story of the legend of ‘Jack-O-Lantern was published in the Dublin Penny Journal and this triggered off a trend, however, it would seem cultures was doing very similar things during Halloween time many years before this.
According to legends, travellers sometimes saw a strange light at night, especially over swamps, bogs, and marshes. The light was said to hold power over people, drawing them closer, but, like a mirage, fading away as they approached.
Known as ignis fatuus in latin, meaning “foolish fire”, anyone who was lured off the trail by the light would surely lose his way. The phenomenon became known by other names, most commonly will-o’-the-wisp, jack-o’-lantern, or friar’s lantern and was thought to be the devil’s work, the pranks of fairies, or even an omen of death. Jack-o’-lantern has the same meaning, but using the name “Jack” and a lantern in place of a torch (wisp).
The Stingy Jack Legend
There is a few variations of the story, however, the most common story is that Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”