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Friday, October 30, 2015

Jack with a Lantern

I did a little search for old images of Jack-o'-lanterns, which turned into a brief peak at their twisted history.

From Jack o'Lantern and Other Rhymes, 1883 (which features several jack-o'-lantern illustrations)
Halloween is an old holiday.  Viewed as a harvest festival it's extremely ancient.  But it's more modern form begins with an evening celebration before All Saints Day, a holiday of some branches of Christianity.  Also called All Hallow's Day, the evening before was All Hallow's Eve, eventually becoming Halloween.  Wikipedia says this name took hold by 1745, and I easily find it in several late 18th century sources.

By this time Halloween was already associated with supernatural activities, "witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings", especially fairies (from Robert Burns' footnote on his 1785 poem Halloween).  It was also associated with cabbage (also called "kail", and which might be the same thing in this context as turnips), which was apparently pulled up on Halloween as a way of predicting the size and shape of your future spouse (also in Burns' footnotes).  An 1897 source claims that cabbage may also be pelted against the door of a house if things get carried away, which certainly sounds like a "Trick" portion of "Trick or Treat".  This is somewhat verified by an article about Christmas and New Years celebrations in 1831 (The Edinburgh Literary Journal), which warns that if you don't reward "guizarders" (think Christmas carolers with clowns instead of singers), that you'd better keep an eye on your cabbage the following Halloween.

But probably just as old as Halloween, and possibly even older, are "Jack-o'-lanterns".  Except that they weren't pumpkins.  Depending on the source they were "fairies" or "spirits" or perhaps in more scientific contexts they were "meteors" (a general word in that era that included many unexplained glowing phenomena of the night).  Today you might have heard of "ball lightning" as a possibly related phenomenon.  The closest phrase you might have heard of these days would probably be "ghost light".

The demon version of the Jack-o'-lantern, from George Cruikshank's Omnibus, 1877.

There's a centuries old legend describing a light that's observed in the mist in swampy areas, which recedes away if the observer follows it, drawing them away from the path, sometimes to their doom.  Much like ball lightning, there's enough documentation on this phenomenon to wonder if it's more than just a legend.  And it has been scientifically investigated to varying degrees over time.  This phenomenon was called Ignis Fatuus (foolish light) in more academic sources dating back to at least the early 1600s.  Colloquially it has two popular names: Will of the wisp, and Jack of the Lantern (or sometimes Jack with the lantern), which are also at least that old.

Scientific investigations of the time blamed this effect on a few different things.  One possible source was the Aurora Borealis, however most descriptions generally seem to indicate that the light was close by.  One description claims that by holding still and averting their breath, an observer was able to use a Will-o-the-wisp to ignite a flame, and that where it occurred the ground could be set on fire.  This has led some to believe today that there is a very real "cold flame" chemical reaction involving methane and other swamp gases that created a light, which would recede because a person's breath and motions would disturb the delicate balance needed to preserve such a fragile chemical reaction.

In other words, blaming unexplainable phenomena on "swamp gas" dates back hundreds of years.

(Personally I can't help but wonder if the same refractive effects that cause Sun Dogs and Moon halos might under very specific circumstances of icy fog and moon position create an effect in fog that may appear very close, and yet appear to remain at a certain distance no matter where the observer moved.  Although given the "cold flame" descriptions from history, this would only explain a subset of these events.  It's easy to dismiss such descriptions as nonsense, but I like to remind myself that people who wrote those books were exactly the same human animals that I know today.)

From American Agriculturist, vol. 39, 1880
So why "Jack with a lantern"?  Why for that matter, "Will of the wisp"?   I had originally taken "Will of the wisp" to mean the fog had a will of its own, but apparently Will in this case means William, just as Jack is a name short for John (but often associated with mischief).  And some sources attribute "wisp" to a sort of simple torch made of bundled leaves and twigs, which makes it more of a parallel with the name "Jack of the lantern".

There's also a story of Stingy Jack that has been attributed as the origin.  There's a poem that I can find in 1851 about Stingy Jack and a deal he makes with the devil that keeps him out of hell.  Since he can't get into heaven either, he walks the earth, for some reason carrying a lantern.  However I find "Jack-o-lantern" seems to much predate Stingy Jack, so I'm inclined to think that Stingy Jack is a later bit of fun rather than an origin.  On the other hand, some similar lost tales may sit at the origin of both "Jack-o'-lantern" and "Will-o'-the-wisp".

Another source from 1834 claims that the real origin is the latin word "jaculantur", which has something to do with throwing spears.  In this alleged origin, nighttime spear-fishing was a popular sport at one time, and links the latin word with the person holding the lantern during this sport.  But as with Stingy Jack, I find no mention or hint of this in anything from the 1600s or 1700s.

At any rate, the name "Jack-o'-lantern" is apparently much older than the name "Halloween", easily appearing into the 1600s along with Will-o-the-wisp.  Some sources list it as Jack-o-lanthorn, where "lanthorn" is an alternate form for lantern which fell out of use in the 1700s.  It's often used as a euphemism for being led astray, even in the earliest sources I've found.

As the name of a ghost of fairy or spirit, the name "Jack-o-lantern" was naturally associated with Halloween as early as Halloween was associated with the supernatural.  But when was the name applied to the carved pumpkin?

From Harper's Weekly, 1867
Carving faces into vegetables is most likely the oldest aspect of this entire tradition.  Peruvian gourd carving is 3,500 years old according to many online sources, and I have no doubt that carving effigies into vegetables is substantially older than this.  More recently, Guy Fawkes night has in the past used painted or carved turnips for effigies of Guy Fawkes, generally burned and otherwise destroyed during the festivities, as noted (among several other sources) in the 1867 Harper's Weekly article that is the source of the above image.  It isn't clear if there was a candle in the turnip. However, many modern sources claim a close relationship in the practices of Guy Fawkes night (which is November 5th) and Halloween.

In another very old tradition, often attributed as a predecessor to pumpkin lanterns, the Scottish used to carve turnips into lamps and use them at Halloween.  According to an 1825 dictionary the entire turnip was carved thin enough to be translucent, and then the face was formed by "blacking" parts of the outside.  This was called a "Candle and Castock", where castock was a word that meant cabbage stalk or pith of a "colewort" (it's hard to track all this terminology since meaning seems to have shifted—cabbage, turnip, and "kail" seem to be used somewhat interchangeably).  At any rate, the same dictionary entry clearly establishes a connection to Halloween.  It would seem then that this would be a simple transition form turnips to pumpkins, but the history that I've found so far doesn't seem to confirm this at all.

Pumpkin lanterns seem to be fairly common in the U.S. through most of the 1800s.  It's important to remember that pumpkins (and other squash) seem to be an American plant.  Native Americans may have been doing this for thousands of years, but there's no direct record I know of that.  However the very earliest record I've found that combines pumpkins, lanterns, and faces, is from an 1832 story about native Americans in the New England Magazine, which describes a collection of "pumpkin lanterns, stuck upon poles, and carved into Indian faces with all sorts of inhuman distortions", and seems to tie them to the native culture.  Through the the rest of the 1800s, sources seem to indicate that carving a pumpkin and putting a candle in it was a boyish pastime, rather than a practical lamp design.  Most sources on pumpkin lanterns generally seem to assume that the pumpkin will be carved into a crude face as opposed to a plain lantern.  At least one source indicates that this was something done with useless, unripened pumpkins only.  Most of the sources indicate that it was often done as some sort of prank, used to attempt to scare children and the neighbors.

The earliest photo I've found so far, from Western Camera Notes, 1903
What's perplexing in all of this is that even though we have a turnip lamp with a face that's associated with Halloween by 1825, and pumpkin-face lamps existed around the same time, I can't connect pumpkin-lamps to Halloween from explicit sources until the 1890s (where sources are suddenly easy to find).  I can establish that pumpkin-face lanterns were called "Jack-o-lanterns" by 1855.  The Oxford English Dictionary traces it to an 1837 source, which is fairly convincing but still leaves room for confusion with the original meaning.  In fact, I've seen Jack-o'-lanterns or pumpkin lanterns mentioned in connection with Thanksgiving, Christmas (1876), and some sort of candle in a pumpkin for Easter (1845), before I see any connection to Halloween.

One thing I've learned about history is that you can't make strong assumptions about the culture based on books.  Today, our culture hits our media instantly.  But in the past "vulgar" culture was explicitly kept out of books.  Certainly this was tied to the expense of bookmaking, and the tendency decreased as the cost of making books steadily decreased.  In the 1600s and 1700s publishing was all about scholarly work.  In the 1800s, gradually more and more popular culture seeped into published works, as paper and presses became cheaper and higher quality, and printers proliferated.  And of course with the Linotype in 1886 and it's ability to produce about three or four times as much text at the same cost, popular culture overtook scholarly work.

So one might easily see the lack of an explicit reference as a simple oversight.  And yet I've read a few sources on Halloween customs that don't mention pumpkin lanterns at all, and a few sources on pumpkin lanterns that never mention Halloween at all.  This is hardly a rigorous analysis, but I tend to think that until the late 1800s, there was only a mild link between the two at best.

To summarize, based on my very brief examination, this is all I can confirm right now:

  • Jack-o'-lantern, the ghost/phenomenon, by the 1600s
  • Hallowe'en, by the 1700s
  • Turnip-lamps with faces for Halloween, by the 1800s
  • Pumpkin-lanterns with faces, by the 1830s
  • Jack-o'-lantern as the name of pumpkin-faced lanterns, by the 1850s
  • Jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween by the 1890s 

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