The jack-o’-lantern is the unrivaled symbol of Halloween, and the name for this candle-lit grimacing face carved in a pumpkin has been a part of American English since the 19th century. However, the term was used earlier in 17th century England as a slangy name for a night watchman or just a man with a lantern.
Over there, the name, Jack, was used as a general replacement for the word “man,” which gave us phrases like “Jack of all trades” and “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ However, the connection between carved pumpkins and this name is unclear although it may have been derived from the Celtic traditions of illuminating carved turnips and other root vegetables around Halloween combined with the fact that the eerie flickering lights (will-o-the-wisp) that appear at night over peat bogs are often called jack-o'-lanterns as well.
Another tale about how the jack-o'-lantern got its name comes from Irish folklore. It begins with a mean-spirited man named Stingy Jack who was a deceiver and manipulator. Jack tricked the devil into making a promise not to bother him for ten years and that he wouldn’t take his soul when he died. However, after he died, the plan backfired because God would not let a sinner like Jack into heaven and the Devil had promised not to take his soul to Hell. That left Jack with nowhere to go and so he had to spend his afterlife forever wandering around the darkness of what was in-between. The devil gave Jack a burning ember for light, and Jack put it in a carved-out turnip to use as a lantern, creating the first jack-o’-lantern.
When Irish immigrants came to America, they applied their root-carving practices to the pumpkin, which is larger, more colorful, and more easily carved. After that, carving a jack-o’-lantern to lend a spooky air to Halloween spread to become a tradition throughout America.
If you decide you are going to carve a jack-o'-lantern, the first thing to do is select the right pumpkin. Begin by checking for any soft spots or cuts in the skin. Avoid pumpkins with these because they are a sign that the pumpkin will decay quickly and may not make it to Halloween. Next, check that the stem is firm and intact and place the pumpkin on a flat surface to see if it rolls over or will stand the way you want.
Wait until it gets close to Halloween before carving your jack-o'-lantern. An undamaged pumpkin will last six to twelve weeks, but after it is cut it will only last a week to ten days.
Once you have whittled the design you want into your pumpkin, there are a few things you can do to make it last longer. First be sure that all the “guts” and seeds in your pumpkin have been removed and that the interior walls have been scraped as thoroughly as possible to remove all stringy material. The cleaner your pumpkin is, the slower it will decay.
When you are done carving, wash both the inside and exterior of your jack-o’-lantern and set it upside down so it can drain and dry. After that, some people have recommended sealing the cut parts with petroleum jelly or olive oil, spraying or soaking the whole thing with a weak bleach solution (1-2 tsps per gallon of water), or soaking it in very salty water. Most authorities on the subject believe applying the weak bleach solution (and reapplying as needed) to be the best technique. One last thing, if you want your jack-o’-lantern to last awhile, be sure to keep it cool and out of the sun, out of the rain, and in a place where it won’t freeze if the weather gets really cold outside.
Finally, there is the matter of how to illuminate your jack-o’-lantern. Tradition dictates that you use a candle or tea-candle for the job because of the mystique of a flickering flame. But inserting a regular candle and getting it to stand in place without burning your self can be a bit tricky if the hole in the top is narrow. One suggestion is to cut the working hole in the bottom of the pumpkin instead of the top so when you are done carving, you can set the candle where you want it and place the jack-o’-lantern down on top of it. However, you may need to cut a “chimney hole” in the top of your pumpkin so the candle stays lit.
If you don’t fancy the idea of having a live flame flickering out on your front porch and around the neighborhood children, there other options for illuminating a jack-o’-lantern. You can use small LED lights or toss in a couple of those glow sticks that give off a soft spooky kind of light. Another option is to fill your jack-o’-lantern with Christmas lights or purchase a set of remote control pumpkin lights that let you control your jack o’ lantern’s light from around 20 feet away.
If you can get all your friends and neighbors to gather together the jack-o’-lanterns of all their friends and neighbors and everyone else in your town, perhaps you can beat the Guinness World Record the town of Keene, NH set in 2013 by having 30,581 jack-o’-lanterns on display at one time. What makes this record even more impressive is that that was 7,045 more jack-o’-lanterns than there were people who lived in the town. You just gotta love human beings. They do so many crazy-wonderful things that keep life interesting.