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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 (or jack o'lantern) is a carved pumpkin, or turnip, associated with the holiday of Halloween and 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 or comical face, is carved out of the pumpkin's rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source (such as a candle or tea light) 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 prior to and during Halloween.


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 England, 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."


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 the custom 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 to 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] However, the following year, the same publication carried a lengthy discourse of the legend of "Jack-o'-the-Lantern".[12] Robert Burns does not mention them in his famous poem "Halloween".[13] Thomas Johnson Westropp does not mention them in Folklore of Clare (1910)[14] and an "internationally accepted authority on Irish folk tradition", Seán Ó Súilleabháin, does not mention them in Irish Folk Custom and Belief (1967).[15]

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 literature and popular culture[edit]

Adaptations of Washington Irving's 1820 short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" often depict the Headless Horseman with a pumpkin or jack-o'-lantern in place of his severed head. (In the original story, a shattered pumpkin is discovered next to Ichabod Crane's abandoned hat on the morning after Crane's supposed encounter with the Horseman.)

The application of the term to carved pumpkins in American English is first attested in 1834.[17] The carved pumpkin lantern association with Hallowe'en is recorded in 1866 in the U.S.:[18] 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.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote a nautical novel in 1842 called The Jack O'lantern (le Feu-Follet), Or the Privateer. "The Jack O'lantern" was the name of the ship.[19]

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.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was born in Massachusetts in 1807, wrote "The Pumpkin" (1850):[20]

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.[21] In 1900, an article on Thanksgiving entertaining recommended a lit jack-o'-lantern as part of the festivities.[21]

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:[22]


A commercial "R.I.P." pattern.
Halloween 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[23] retold in different forms across Western Europe,[24] with variations being present in the folklore of Norway, Sweden, England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Italy and Spain.[25] An old Irish folk tale from the mid-19th Century tells of Stingy Jack, a lazy yet shrewd blacksmith who uses a cross to trap Satan. One story[26] says that Jack tricked Satan 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 Satan couldn't get 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 Satan, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting Satan with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told Satan to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (Satan could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin (Satan) 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 Satan 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, Satan 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 Satan mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of Hades, 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]


  • The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy Halloween special Billy and Mandy's Jacked-Up Halloween features a completely different if similar version of the above story; Jack was depicted as the village trickster of Endsville long before the series' events. Despite being pleasant, he constantly pulled pranks on the villagers (and was rumored to have invented some tricks, as well as laughing himself to sleep), bad enough to make them send a prank gift to their Queen and frame Jack for it. She in response sent a knight to Jack's 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, forcing him to only come out every Halloween night to play his pranks. Jack is later referenced in the Big Boogey Adventure and also appears as a playable character in the video game.
  • In Quest 64, the jack-o'-lantern is an enemy and can be found in Windward Forest. The element is fire for this monster.
  • In Bully and Bully: Scholarship Edition, there are 30 jack-o'-lanterns to break to get a jack-o'-lantern hat. They are found Around Bullworth Academy on Halloween mission. If not all of them are destroyed, they can be found in the Bullworth Academy Basement.
  • In a Smurfs comic book story, Halloween, the Smurfs' archenemy the evil wizard Gargamel connives with a wicked witch to conjure up Jack himself to get revenge on the Smurflings for pulling some Halloween pranks on them using pumpkin jack-o'-lanterns. Unfortunately, instead of granting their request, Jack insists on carrying away whoever summoned him. When neither Gargamel and the witch will own up to summoning Jack, and try to pin it solely on each other, Jack punishes them both by turning Gargamel into a pumpkin and causing a string of sausages to grow from the witch's nose.
  • In Pokémon X and Y, the Ghost Pokémon Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist resemble Jack-o-Lanterns.
  • In the Megami Tensei game series, Jack O'Lantern (also called Pyro Jack) is a commonly encountered demon.
  • In Gravity Falls the residents of the namesake location celebrate "Summerween" and carve "jack-o'-melons" out of watermelons, and in the episode named after the holiday, The Summerween Trickster threatened to eat Dipper, Mabel, Grenda, Soos, and Candy(the character) if they did not bring him 500 pieces of candy before all the jack-o'-melons extinguished, as the final extinguishing signaled the end of the holiday.

Pumpkin craft[edit]

Pumpkin craft for Halloween, using a commercial carving pattern.

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.[27] 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. "Highwood sets pumpkin-carving record - Highland Park News". Highlandpark.suntimes.com. Retrieved 2012-10-30. 

On October 19, 2013, Keene, New Hampshire broke the Boston record and became once again the current world record for most lit jack-o'-lanterns on display with 30,581. Keene has now broken the record 8 times since the original attempt.[28]

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.[29]

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. ^ "History of Jack-o'-the-Lantern", Dublin Penny Journal, Volumes 3-4, p.229, 1835
  13. ^ Burns, Robert. "Halloween". Poems, Songs, and Letters: Being the Complete Works of Robert Burns. Retrieved 2013-09-24. 
  14. ^ Westropp, T.J. (1910). Folklore of Clare - A Folklore survey of County Clare. 
  15. ^ Ó Súilleabháin, Seán (1967). Irish Folk Custom and Belief. 
  16. ^ Allies, Jabez (1856). The British, Roman, and Saxon antiquities and folklore of Worcestershire. London: J.R. Smith. p. 423. 
  17. ^ "Jack-o'-lantern," Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest citation is from 1663.
  18. ^ Daily News (Kingston, Ontario), November 1, 1866
  19. ^ Review of Cooper's "Jack O'Lantern", The Spectator December 3, 1842
  20. ^ Whittier, John Greenleaf. "The Pumpkin".
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Jacqueline Simpson, Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press, 2000
  23. ^ Jack Santino All around the year: holidays and celebrations in American life, p.157 University of Illinois Press, 1995
  24. ^ Allies, Jabez (1856). The British, Roman, and Saxon antiquities and folklore of Worcestershire. London: J.R. Smith. p. 430. 
  25. ^ Newell, William Wells (1 January 1904). "The Ignis Fatuus, Its Character and Legendary Origin". Journal of American Folk-Lore 17. 
  26. ^ Mark Hoerrner (2006). "History of the Jack-O-Lantern". buzzle.com. Retrieved 2007-05-09. 
  27. ^ Michael Levenson and Kathy McCabe, A love in Common for pumpkins, The Boston Globe, October 22, 2006, p. B6.
  28. ^ Guinness World Records
  29. ^ "Largest Jack O'Lantern". Guinness World Records 2009. Archived from the original on 2011-05-18. Retrieved October 10, 2009. 

External links[edit]