A jack-o’-lantern is a carved pumpkin, or turnip, associated chiefly with the holiday of Halloween, and was named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, called will-o’-the-wisp or jack-o’-lantern. In a jack-o’-lantern, the top is cut off to form a lid, and the inside flesh then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved out of the pumpkin’s rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source is placed within before the lid is closed. This is traditionally a flame or electric candle, though pumpkin lights featuring various colors and flickering effects are also marketed specifically for this purpose. It is common to see jack-o’-lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations during Halloween
The name “jack-o’-lantern” is of British origin and dates from the 17th century, when it literally meant “man with a lantern” (a night watchman). It was also a popular nickname for the natural phenomenon known as ignis fatuus (fool’s fire), or “will o’ the wisp” — those mysterious, flickering blue lights seen occasionally over wetlands at night and associated in folklore with mischievous ghosts or fairies. – source
By the early 1800s, “jack-o’-lantern” had also become the more popular name for a homemade object originally known as a “turnip lantern,” described by Thomas Darlington in his 1887 volume The Folk-Speech of South Cheshire as “a lantern made by scooping out the inside of a turnip, carving the shell into a rude representation of the human face, and placing a lighted candle inside it.” For Catholic children it was customary to carry turnip lanterns door-to-door to represent the souls of the dead while begging for soul cakes on Hallowmas (All Saints Day, Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2). They were also carried by parading celebrants on Guy Fawkes Day (Nov. 5).
In some parts of Great Britain displaying a jack-o’-lantern was regarded simply as a form of pranksterism. “It is a common device of mischievous lads for frightening belated wayfarers on the road,” noted Darlington. Another British author, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, recounts a memorable jack-o’lantern prank in The Cornish Magazine, published in 1899:
The mischievous youngsters took the hatch (the lower half of the front door) and having tied to a nail driven in its centre a large well-lighted turnip lantern cut to represent a grotesque, grinning, human face, carried it to the top of the house, laying it flat over the chimney, the lantern, suspended by a strong cord, being let down through the chimney to such a depth as to be visible to anyone looking up from below — the fireplace being open. In a very brief time the smoke, prevented by the hatch from escaping through the chimney, began to fill the house. Everyone quickly commenced to cough and complain of the irritation caused by the smoke. One of the women of the house bent down and looked up the chimney to ascertain what was amiss, and the ugly face met her gaze, causing her to shriek and go into hysterics.
The Legend of Stingy Jack
According to an oft-repeated tale (though surely one invented after the fact), the jack-o’-lantern actually took its name from a roguish Irishman known as Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil into promising him that he wouldn’t go to hell for his many, many sins. When Jack died, however, he found to his dismay that he had also been barred from heaven, so he went down below, banged on the gates of hell, and demanded his due from the Devil. Wouldn’t you know it, though the latter did keep his promise to save Jack from going to hell, he did so by dooming him to wander the earth for all eternity with only an ember of hellfire to light his way. Thenceforth, according to the legend, Stingy Jack was known by the name of Jack O’Lantern.
It wasn’t until Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving jack-o’-lanterns to North America that the more commonly available pumpkin came to be used for that purpose, and not until the mid-to-late 19th century that pumpkin carving became a Halloween staple all across the United States. This tidy instructional narrative comes from Victoire and Perdue’s The New Century First Reader, published in 1899:
Will and Fred went to the barn.
They got a pumpkin.
The pumpkin was large.
The pumpkin was yellow.
The boys cut the top off.
They cut the seeds out.
They cut four holes in the pumpkin.
They put a candle in the pumpkin.
The light shone out.
The boys said, “See our Jack-o’-Lantern.”