Although Creative Concepts is a landscape installation and maintenance company, in the spirit of the upcoming Halloween holiday, this week’s blog article will take a look at one of our most iconic vegetables, the jack-o’-lantern.
The history of the jack-o’-lantern is deeply tied with horticulture, the spirit (and spiritual) realm, changing seasons, and of course, displaying the heads of your vanquished foes.
Ancient Roots for Ancient Vegetable Artisans
The story of the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern is centuries in the making. There has long been a northern European Celtic tradition of carving bizarre, and often grotesque, faces into turnips and other root vegetables. There are multiple thoughts on why this practice took shape (and it was surely done outside the boundaries of modern day Europe as well). In part, this tradition could come from the historical veneration of the human head, as a representation, a symbol, of intrinsic human consciences. You cannot deny we humans are obsessed with the human face and head (just look at any Instagram ‘influencers’ page). Another origin of the carved root vegetable head is that is represented the horrifically common practice of displaying the severed head of your tribe’s slain enemy.
The pre-Christian Celtic celebration of Samhain, traditionally practiced on November 1st, directly inspired much that would become Halloween. On Samhain eve, October 31st, the spirits of the dead were thought to walk the earth, mingling with the living, as the season changed into darker winter. People wore costumes and carved frightening faces into root vegetables such as beets and turnips, all of which were usually plentiful after the recent autumn harvest. These carved vegetables were sometimes hollowed out and a piece of burning coal, wooden embers, or, eventually, a candle would be placed inside, setting the ghoulish face aglow. These lighted faces were thought to help ward off any of the night’s roaming spirits that might be malevolent.
Also, metal lanterns were very expensive, so using a hallowed out vegetable was the poor-mans’ practical pathway light.
A plaster cast of an early 1900s jack-o’-lantern, known as a ‘ghost turnip’ at The National Museum of Ireland.
The practice of carving these faces into vegetables continued through the centuries in Ireland and Scotland (remember, pumpkins had not yet made their way to the old world). When immigrants from these countries came to North America, they found a lack of turnips, but plentiful pumpkins, and clearly, the larger, soft centered pumpkin is an excellent canvas to hone your face carving skills on.
The jack-o’-lantern as a carved pumpkin began to show up in American culture around the mid-1800s. The first image of a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern is likely one that appeared in the 1867 issue of Harper’s weekly (shown below).
The 1820 story of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” had the headless horseman (a German mercenary who was beheaded by a canon ball during the Revolutionary War) throw an uncarved pumpkin at the protagonist, Ichabod Crane. Later versions often featured the horseman holding a carved pumpkin head, making this story a Halloween favorite throughout the years. This story is one of the first internationally known horror stories, cementing the pumpkin’s association with ghostly fright.
“The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane” by John Quidor (1858)
What’s in a name?
The name ‘jack-o’-lantern’ has referred to the carved pumpkin since the late 19th century, however earlier, the term was used to refer to night watchmen. 17th century Britain is where the term, ‘jack-o’-lantern’ originated, referring to a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. At the time, it was common in Britain to call a man who’s name you did not know, ‘ Jack.’ Similar to the word ‘guy’ in modern usage, such as ‘hey, what’s up, guy?’ Thus an unknown man carrying a lantern was called ‘Jack with the lantern’ or ‘Jack of the lantern.’
‘Jack-o’-lantern’ was also used to refer to a different kind of light. Decaying plants in marshy areas would release gas that would cause flame-like phosphorescence (this phenomena deserves its own blog – maybe some day). These lights were known as ignis fatuus, which is Medieval Latin meaning ‘foolish fire.’ These wispy flames were also known as ‘will o the wisp’ – which comes from a fairly tale describing a spirit named Will who carries a fleeting ‘wisp’ of light that would lead travelers astray into the marsh:
‘Who bears the wispy fire to trail the swains [meaning peasant or, specifically, shepherd] among the mire.’
One can understand why people associated this natural flame-like phosphorescence with distant flickering lanterns.
A peat bog in Ireland. Don’t get lost now…
Historians and linguists are not sure why the term ‘jack-o’-lantern’ started being used in reference to the hollowed out pumpkin. A common thought is that Irish immigrants to the United States drew a connection between the glow of the pumpkin to the ignis fatuus back in the Old World. Another possible connection is the story of Stingy Jack, another Irish folktale. This story has many forms, but roughly goes as such:
Stingy Jack was running away from a group of angry fellow villagers because he had, once again, swindled them out of money. Jack turned a corner and found the Devil standing before him. The Devil told Jack it was time to die. Jack, a clever sort, convinced the Devil that if he, the Devil, transformed himself into a coin (because the Devil is a shape-shifter), together they could trick all those church going villagers that Jack would pay them back. Once Jack handed the coin over and ran off, the Devil would disappear and the villagers would blame each other over who stole the money.
The Devil loved the idea. He became a coin and fell into Jack’s pocket. Also in his pocket was a silver cross, which he had stolen. The cross, next to the coin, prevented the Devil from transforming again. With the devil-coin stuck in his pocket, Jack ran off, in absolute glee.
Years past. When Jack eventually die, God would not allow such a conniving trickster into Heaven. The Devil, still angry at being made a fool of, would not allow Jack into Hell either. The Devil took some pity on jack, being a devious one himself, and gave him one burning coal to light his way. Jack put the burning coal into a carved turnip and has been roaming between Heaven and Hell, aka the earth, ever since. He became ‘Jack of the Lantern,’ and eventually ‘Jack O’Lantern’.
This was a morality tale. If you deceive those around you, they will eventually outcast you, and you will be forced, emotionally if not physically, to wander from place to place. No one will trust you enough to welcome you into the community. A soul wandering through purgatory.
Side note: those ‘O’s’ in Irish names (such as the famous O’Brien) mean ‘descendant,’ and, similarly, ‘Mac’ means ‘son’.
Another theory is that the name ‘jack-o’-lantern’ as applied to a carved out pumpkin, originated during nighttime pumpkin pranks of the 1800s. People would carve these ghoulish faces into pumpkins and would put a light inside to scare people. Eventually people began to refer to these late night pumpkin antics as ‘jack-o’-lanterns’, in reference to the similar ‘jack-o’-lanterns’ seen at night in the marshy bogs. This is speculative, but generally considered not unreasonable.
Today the jack-o’-lantern is singularly the most associated image with Halloween (at least in the US and Canada). Of course, due to the dissemination of American culture around the world, the Halloween pumpkin jack-o’-lantern is found worldwide. Although the carved pumpkin has a sometimes horrific history, today it represents a welcoming sense of community, good values, and neighborliness.
And thus the tradition continues, far beyond the ‘O’s (descendants) of those Irish immigrants. Immigrants often bring their traditions, melting into the fabric of American society. It’s still happening today, just look how popular Día de los Muertos calaveras skulls are becoming.
We hoped you enjoyed today’s trip down the horticulture of history. Whether it’s building planter beds, cleaning up an existing garden, or installing a new landscape, Creative Concepts Landscape will happily discuss possibilities with you. Take a look at our Yelp page and contact us today (818 248-7436), to see what we can do for your landscape. Happy Halloween!
By Daniel Williams
Client Liaison for Creative Concepts Landscape Management