The History of This: Jack o’ lanterns

By Colleen Harper

Roman scholars wrote the first descriptions of jack-o-lanterns after their conquest of the Celtic lands. They were horrid faces, carved on hollowed out turnips or beets and lit with a glowing ember. The Celts celebrated Samhain, a fall equinox ritual, at least as early as the first century AD. At the time of the Roman invasion, Samhain rituals were well established and intricately tied to folklore. Celts believed that on the night of Samhain, the spirits of all the years dead would rise to journey into the afterlife, and the spirits of ancestors would rise to cause mischief. Jack-o-lanterns were carved, lit, and set outside a home to guide the spirits of the recent dead, and also to trick the ancient spirits into believing the residents themselves were ghouls so they might leave the home unmolested.


At the beginning of the 4th century AD, the emperor Constantine converted to christianity and all of its accompanying rituals and symbology permeated the Roman Empire. Catholics began practicing Hollowmas, a three day festival  wherein the souls of the recently dead were prayed for and celebrated. They carved their own Jack-o-Lanterns from turnips and lit them to represent the poor souls trapped in purgatory, never able to ascend to heaven.

The word Jack-o-Lantern comes from an atmospheric light phenomena sometimes seen over peat bogs. There are several modern theories for the exact cause of the this phenomenon, but science has yet to provide a decisive explanation. Ghostly lights appear over bogs and then retreat as the observer approaches. The Celts believed them to be spirits and they referred to them colloquially by many names, including  jack-o-lantern, a reference to a common folk legend. The legend states that Jack was a mischievous thief that managed to trap the devil and bargain his own exemption from hell in exchange for the devils release. There are many variations on the story but they all end with poor Jacks death. He is forbidden to enter heaven because of his sin, and unable to enter hell because of his bargain. The devil tosses Jack a burning coal from hell which he uses to light a lantern for his eternal wandering.

Oh!—fruit loved of boyhood!—the old days recalling, When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling! When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin, Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

– John Greenleaf Whittier, 1850

European immigrants to America brought their many Hallowe’en and Hallowmas traditions to the new world. They carved the giant native pumpkins instead of turnips and beets. In the 1800’s, throwing Hallow’s eve masquerades became increasingly popular and by the end of the 19th century, Victorians were racing to impress their neighbors with fancy decorations and themed parties. Costumed children would sometimes use jack-o-lanterns to light their way from house to house to collect treats, and many pumpkins were carved as part of the decoration and merrymaking.

In the 20th century pumpkin jack-o-lanterns remain an important and iconic part of Halloween. Contemporary pumpkin carvers compete for the most intricate and creative design. Many grotesque faces are still carved, but also a range of other images from landscapes to abstract art. Pumpkins are no longer carved out of fear of the dead, or as protection from otherworldly forces, but as a traditional holiday pastime and artistic outlet.

By Colleen Harper