Who’s Jack, as in Jack O’Lantern? That’s right. My question wasn’t, “What’s a Jack-o’-lantern”? But instead, who’s this Jack guy and how did he get involved with Halloween?
Let’s begin by taking a look at the name, Jack. In Medieval Europe, Jack was a slang term for “everyone”. It came from an older form of phrase “everichon” which was often split into “every chone. The expression then changed to “every John” (note the similarity in pronunciation between chone and John). Over time, the next iteration became “every Jack”. Finally, an idiom for “everyone” became “every man Jack of them.” Does the following line sound familiar?
“But I am responsible for the ship’s safety and the life of every man Jack aboard of her.”
It’s straight out of Treasure Island, by Robert Luis Stevenson.
Great. Now we know where the name “Jack” of the Jack-o-lantern came from, but what does it have to do with glowing pumpkins on Halloween? According to tradition, the Irish once carved out root vegetables, placed a lit candle inside, and then diligently put them in their windows the evening before All Saints Day. The eve was known as All Hallow Even. Today we refer to the night before All Saints Day as Halloween. It was believed that lit gourds warded off the souls of the dead, whom the Irish believed carried about on the eve of this holy day.
Let’s pause just for a moment and go back in time to another period: Ancient Rome. Back in the day, the mysterious gas that faintly burns over marshy swampland was then called, ignis fatuus. The direct translation is, “crazy fire”. Now fast forward to Medieval Europe…this “crazy fire” was believed to be aglow with sprites, ghosts, goblins, and wandering souls of the dead. The perfect place, of course, to carry about on All Hallow Evening! The man with the lantern, the Jack-o’-Lantern, came to exemplify a man who carried a lantern across the fiery swamps that eerily glowed nearby.
When the Irish immigrated to America, the custom changed from lit gourds to lit pumpkins. Lighting pumpkins on Halloween is now a revered holiday in the United States, shared by people of all walks of life and cultures. It’s a time for children to dress up in scary or funny costumes, and go door-to-door for sweets and neighborly greetings. It’s a custom that’s lost its earlier supernatural connotations and, instead, was replaced with neighborly cheer and goodwill.
I find it fascinating the way history links people’s customs from the far and wide regions of the world. In this case, from Rome to Ireland to the United States. I also find it fascinating the way pronunciation links peoples and customs the world over. From All Hallows Even to Halloween. And while there may not really be a Jack with a lantern who whisks over swampy waters aglow with sprites and other phantoms, I’d still like to like to use the name Jack for a Halloween greeting:
Wishing every man Jack a very Happy Halloween!