At one time, the term "Jack O' Lantern" was used to describe a mysterious light seen at night, flickering over marshes. When approached, it receded, always out of reach.  The phenomenon is also known as Will O' the Wisp and Ignis Fatuus.  The term, "Jack-of-the-Lantern", first appeared in print in 1750 and referred to a night watchman or a man carrying a lantern. In pop legend, it is considered ominous and is often thought to be the soul of one who has been rejected by Hades; carrying its own hell coal on its wanderings.  However, its legend reaches far back into Celtic folklore, and is believed to originate with the story of an Irish drunkard named "Stingy" Jack.



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Jack, an Irish blacksmith, had the misfortune of running into the Devil in a pub on Halloween.  Jack had drank a bit too much that evening and the Devil thought him easy prey, but the clever trickster made a bargain with the Devil.  In exchange for one last drink, Jack offered up his soul.  Jack didn't want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence that Jack could use to buy their drinks.  The Devil changed his form to make payment to the bartender, but Jack pocketed the coin in a bag with a silver cross with the knowledge that the cross would prevent the Devil from changing back.  Once in his purse, Jack only freed the Devil after he agreed not to claim his soul for ten years.

Ten years later, the Devil met Jack walking on a country road and told him that he was there to collect his soul.  Jack, feigned compliance, but asked the Devil if he would first climb an apple tree and get him an apple.  The Devil, having nothing to lose, climbed the tree, but as he reached for the apple, Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross in the tree's trunk. The Devil was unable to come back down until he had agreed never to claim Jack's soul.

Some years later, Jack died and went to Heaven.  But he was dismissed from St. Peter's gate because he was too much of an unsavory figure to allow in.  He then went to Hades, but the Devil was bound never to claim his soul, and so would not allow him to enter.  Instead, he sent him away with only a burning ember to light his way.  Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been doomed to roam the Earth in darkness ever since. The Irish began to refer to his damned soul and ghostly light as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, simply "Jack O' Lantern."


In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack's lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the Jack O' Lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect Jack O' Lanterns.

Hundreds of years ago, on Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts like Jack's if they left their homes.  To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits.  To keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease the ghosts or prevent them from entering by frightening them away with the symbol of Jack's damned soul - carved or painted faces on turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, and beets.

With the millions of refugees fleeing Ireland's potato famine of 1846-47, came their beliefs and traditions, which popularized Halloween & Jack O' Lanterns nationwide in the U.S.  Turnips were not readily available in the Americas, but the pumpkin has made for an able substitute, and the Jack O' Lantern is one of the most widely recognized symbols of our Halloween tradition.

SYLLABICATION:  ig·nis fat·u·us
PRONUNCIATION: g'ns fch'-s

NOUN: Inflected forms: pl. ig·nes fat·u·i (gnz fch-)
1. A phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy ground at night, possibly caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by rotting organic matter. Also called friar's lantern, jack-o'-lantern, will-o'-the-wisp, wisp. 2. Something that misleads or deludes; an illusion.

ETYMOLOGY:  Medieval Latin : Latin ignis, fire + Latin fatuus, foolish

  The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition.  2000.

  • Pumpkins are fruits. A pumpkin is a type of squash and is a member of the gourd family (Cucurbitacae), which also includes squash, cucumbers, gherkins, and melons.

  • Pumpkins have been grown in North America for five thousand years. They are indigenous to the western hemisphere.

  • In 1584, after French explorer Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence region of North America, he reported finding "gros melons." The name was translated into English as "pompions," which has since evolved into the modern "pumpkin."

  • Steve Deletas and family, with their world record 1,385 pound pumpkin.Pumpkins are low in calories, fat, and sodium and high in fiber. They are good sources of Vitamin A, Vitamin B, potassium, protein, and iron.

  • The official world record for the largest pumpkin ever grown, as recorded by the Guinness Book, was 1,385 pounds. It was grown by Steve Deletas of Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in 2003.

  • The world's largest Jack O’Lantern was carved by Scott Cully (USA) from the then world’s largest pumpkin on October 23, 2002, at the Topsfield Fair, Massachusetts, USA. The pumpkin was grown by Charles Houghton (USA) and weighed 606.72 kg (1,337 lb 9.5 oz) on October 5, 2002, during the fair’s pumpkin weigh-off.

  • Pumpkin seeds should be planted between the last week of May and the middle of June. They take between 90 and 120 days to grow and are picked in October when they are bright orange in color. Their seeds can be saved to grow new pumpkins the next year.

  • According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest pumpkin pie weighed 189.6 kg (418 lb) and was made by the Windsor Certified Farmers Market and the Windsor High School Culinary Arts Program, and served at the Farmers Market, Windsor, California, USA on 26 October 2003. 


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