As far back as 1663, the term “jack-o’ lantern” meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. A decade or so later it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes. These ghost lights also called corpse candles are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize.
Before scientific explanations, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, in the 1500s, these stories revolved around a guy named Jack. Legend has it Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul.
The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. Soon after, Jack died.
As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack O’ Lantern”.
People began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away wandering evil spirits. Immigrants brought this tradition to the United States. They found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o-lanterns.