The Jack of Our Lanterns

This month thousands of Americans will scoop out the flesh of a gourd, carefully carve a haunting face into its rind, and stick a candle inside. The creations are called jack-o’-lanterns, and will be proudly displayed on porches and stoops across the country. But who, or what, is the namesake of this autumn tradition?

Jack has been a general term for a boy since the 16th century, and the British can claim ownership of the original use of the phrase “jack-o’-lantern.”  In the 17th century, it referred to a night watchman, a man who literally carried a lantern. But it was also a nickname for strange, flickering lights seen at night over wetlands or peat bogs and mistaken to be fairies or ghosts. This natural phenomenon is also called ignis fatuus, which means “foolish fire,” and will-o’-the-wisp.

By the mid-1800s what was called a “turnip lantern” became known as a jack-o’-lantern. Young boys used these hollowed-out and lit-up gourds to spook people. Irish legend has it that this use of jack-o’-lantern was named after a fellow named Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack thought he had tricked the devil, but the devil had the last laugh, condemning Jack to an eternity of wandering the planet with only an ember of hellfire for light. Immigrants brought the jack-o’-lantern custom to North America, which is where pumpkins were first used to make the Halloween decorations, and eventually became the gourd of choice.

There’s also a dangerous version of jack-o’-lanterns. A poisonous luminescent orange fungus, Omphalotus olearius, is commonly known as the jack-o’-lantern mushroom! Found in woodland areas of Europe, this glowing growth clusters at the base of decomposing hardwood tree stumps. While the mushroom won’t produce a strong enough glow to power your next hallowed-out gourd, it is a great conversation starter at your next jack-o-lantern carving party.