Who is this Jack fellow and what is he doing with a lantern carved out of a pumpkin, anyway? Glad you asked. Being a cucurbit native to the New World, the pumpkin part is what Americanized an old folktale from the British Isles. And Washington Irving’s yarn, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” canonized the notion of a pumpkin-headed specter as a staple of Halloween lore. The Headless Horseman encountered by Ichabod Crane in the story is supposedly the ghost of a Hessian soldier whose head was carried off by a cannonball during the American Revolution. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the character Brom Bones to impersonate the ghost and scare off the feckless schoolmaster who was stalking his girlfriend, Katrina van Tassel, in spite of her efforts to discourage his courtship, by chucking a large ripe pumpkin at the highly superstitious Crane in lieu of a head.
But the custom of scaring people by carrying a lit candle inside a hollowed-out vegetable is far older than Colonial America. “Jack o’ Lantern” was once a generic nickname in England for a night watchman. The name later began to be used synonymously with Will o’ the Wisp, to denote the imagined bearer of lights in swampy areas, where methane generated by the decomposition of plant material sometimes spontaneously ignites.
Among the folktales told to explain this mysterious chemical phenomenon are the adventures of Stingy Jack, a miserly trickster said to have outwitted the Devil on several occasions. He trapped the Devil in the form of a coin paid to cover the tab at a tavern after a drinking bout, and again at the top of a tree where he had sent him climbing after fruit or a bird’s nest, by marking a cross in a strategic place. The terms of setting the Devil free included not claiming Jack’s soul when he died.
That turned out not to be the smartest bargain after all. Like the woman turned out of Hell for being meaner than its inhabitants in the famous British Isles ballad “The Farmer’s Curst Wife,” Jack finds himself homeless in the afterlife, since Heaven won’t have him either. So he roams the world in a sort of eternal twilight, bearing the lantern that he made to find his way back up out of the nether regions: a smoldering coal lifted from the floor of Hell’s antechamber, tucked inside a hollowed-out turnip. Most likely this would have been a rutabaga (or Swede, as the large yellow form of turnip is popularly known in Britain), rather than the common small white-and-purple turnip. Thus he became Jack o’ Lantern, who, according to the Irish at least, wanders the marshlands bearing a small, flickering light until the end of the world.
Repurposing root vegetables as lanterns to find one’s way home in the dark – or to spook small children for the fun of it – was apparently not an uncommon practice in the Old World in the days before flashlights were invented. In Eastern European countries, beets were sometimes used. When the settlers got to America and were introduced to the easily carved and hollowed pumpkin, it was perfectly natural for the new vessel to be adopted as a substitute. Try carving a scary face into a rock-hard rutabaga and you’ll see why.