As Halloween approaches each year, you will begin to see carved pumpkins — commonly called “jack-o’-lanterns” — sitting on front porches all across America. As it gets dark, you’ll notice that many of them are lit from within by candles, giving them a spooky glow that lets you know Halloween is right around the corner.

Although millions of Americans carve pumpkins every autumn, not many know why or how this tradition got started. As it turns out, we can thank an Irish myth about a man named Jack.

As the old Irish legend goes, “Stingy Jack” was a miserable old man who enjoyed playing tricks on everyone, including the devil himself. One day, Stingy Jack tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree.

He then placed crosses around the tree to prevent the devil from climbing down. Stingy Jack did not remove the crosses and let the devil down until the devil promised he would not take Stingy Jack’s soul when he died.

Years later, Stingy Jack died. Since he had been so mean to people all his life, Saint Peter would not allow him to enter heaven. Stingy Jack visited the devil in hell, but the devil kept his word and would not take his soul.

Stingy Jack was scared to roam alone in the darkness between heaven and hell, so the devil gave him an ember from the flames of hell to help him light his way. Stingy Jack loved turnips and always carried one around with him in case he got hungry.

He hollowed out a turnip and placed the ember inside it, creating a lantern. From that point on, Jack roamed the Earth without a final resting place, lighting his way with his homemade lantern. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern” or “jack-o’-lantern” for short.

On Halloween, the Irish would hollow out turnips, rutabagas, gourds and beets. They would put candles inside them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away.

When Irish immigrants came to America, they brought the tradition of jack-o’-lanterns with them, but they soon discovered that pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve.

Although the Irish legend of Stingy Jack is very popular, some people believe that the term jack-o’-lantern was first used to describe the strange, ghostly, flickering lights that are sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps and marshes.

These lights go by several other names, including “will-o’-the-wisp,” ignis fatuus, “hinkypunk,” “ghost-light,” “fairy light,” “hobby lantern” and “corpse candle.” The faint, flickering lights inside of carved pumpkins resemble these strange marsh lights.

Curiously, some scientists believe these mysterious marsh lights are caused by small fires that erupt when organic material in bogs, swamps and marshes decays, releasing methane and phosphine that spontaneously ignite when they come into contact with the oxygen in the air.

Other scientists believe these strange marsh lights may be explained by bioluminescent plants, such as honey fungus, or even the white feathers of barn owls that fly around in the night.

 

55 Join the Discussion

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  1. I am working on my headstand and I have a time of ten minutes. On Thursday, I’m sending my application to the records website and wait for them to get back to me, but thanks for the support. Good Wonder on jack-o-lanterns. Halloween is my favorite holiday.

    • That is SO AWESOME, David! Thank you for keeping us updated on your attempt to break a World Record…we are rooting for you! We’re also glad you enjoyed today’s Wonder of the Day®! Did you learn some new things about the history of Jack-O’-Lanterns? :-)

  2. Well, I don’t know if my teacher is looking at this (Mrs. Batta), but if she is, that’s sooo cool! Anyway, I am not sure why, but I like the name, oh and Mrs. Batta, tell the class I said, “hi!” :D

    • Hello, JoJo! We’re glad you like Jack-O’-Lanterns! Do you like carving scary ones or funny ones? Thanks for leaving us this comment today! :-)

    • Hi, Autumn! “Hinkypunk” is a word used to describe the mysterious lights that flicker over bogs, swamps and marshes. These lights might just have been the inspiration for the modern-day Jack-O’-Lantern! It’s really fun to learn the history of things, isn’t it? :-)

  3. I think tomorrow’s wonder is about patience.
    Over the weekend, I made my first jack-o-lantern ever. It was a HARRY POTTER jack-o-lantern. It was so cool. I liked taking out the pumpkin guts!
    I LOOOOVED today’s wonder! I am so coming to Wonderopolis tomorrow!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • We’re glad you stopped by Wonderopolis today and that you’re coming back tomorrow, Missy! You’ll have to see if your prediction about tomorrow’s Wonder is correct! Did you take a picture of your Jack-O’-Lantern? We’d LOVE to see it! You can email us your picture by sending it to: hello@Wonderopolis.org. :-)

  4. Dear Wonderopolis,
    That video was pretty unique. It was interesting how they made those cool behind the scenes. That video was probably challenging to make, but it turned out phenomenal.

    • We thought the video was interesting, too, Sarah! We bet it took a long time to shoot the video and edit it together We like how some parts were sped up for effect. We also liked how we were made to think that the Jack-O’-Lantern ate the seeds at the end…creepy! Thanks so much for leaving us this comment today! :-)

  5. I’ve never heard any of these myths! They’re so interesting! I wonder what tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day is? Wonderopolis is so awesome!

    • Thanks for letting us know that you learned some new things from visiting this Wonder of the Day®, Hayden! We think YOU are awesome! :-)

  6. Dear Wonderopolis,

    We really liked the video. Mrs. Johnson’s daughter went to college to learn how to make videos like that. We sent her an email to see how they made the pumpkin seeds move. Now, we want to ask you some questions. We are wondering why we get candy at Halloween. What do you call the stuff inside the pumpkin (not the seeds)? How did Halloween get its name and why is trick or treat called that? Some of us have never carved a pumpkin before, so Mrs. Johnson said that maybe we could do it here.

    From,
    Mrs. Johnson’s third grade

    • WOW, Mrs. Johnson’s third grade! Those are some WONDERful questions! We think it is SO COOL that Mrs. Johnson’s daughter knows how to make videos like the one in this Wonder! Please let us know what she says about the seeds moving!

      We think you might find some of our upcoming October Wonders very helpful in answering many of your questions! Please keep checking back to learn new things! :-)

  7. My class got to choose any wonder for our homework, so I chose this one because I thought the title sounded very interesting! I love the video and how it showed to carve a pumpkin! I’ll be sure to have jack-o-lanterns on my porch for Halloween when everybody goes trick or treating! I learned so many facts especially how the jack-o-lantern got its name. I thought it was so cool that I showed my mom and she loved it! Great wonder!

    • We’re so happy to hear that you shared this Wonder of the Day® with your mom, Colin! It’s also GREAT that you learned so many new things about Jack-O’-Lanterns! It’s fun to learn together in Wonderopolis, isn’t it? Thanks for being an AWESOME Wonder Friend! :-)

  8. COOL VIDEO!!!! :) We loved the effects!!

    We have a field trip planned for next week to go visit a pumpkin patch. We are so excited to create some of our own jack-o-lantern patterns and carve our pumpkins at home. What a cool way to get into the Halloween spirit.

    • We wish we could go with you to visit the pumpkin patch, Kerrick Elementary! Picking pumpkins is a great way to welcome fall, celebrate harvest time, and hang out with great friends! We hope you guys have a WONDERful adventure next week! :-)

  9. I learned a lot of interesting new things with this wonder. I can’t wait to carve out my jack-o-lantern this year. Maybe I’ll try to carve out Jack! :)

    • That sounds AWESOME, Jenna! Make sure you take a picture of your Jack-O’-Lantern and send it to us at our email account (hello@wonderopolis.org) so we can see your GREAT work! :-)

  10. Wow, Wonderopolis! This is sweet! I love the video! Our class got to pick a wonder and do a report on it, and I chose this one because it sounded awesome! :) I especially like the video! My family picked pumpkins today so this one reminded me of the pumpkin patch! Keep the cool wonders coming! You should do one about the founding fathers!!

    • We bet you had some awesome family time picking pumpkins today, Nick! Thanks for sharing how much you enjoyed this Wonder of the Day®! :-)

  11. I LOOOOOOOOOVE THIS VIDEO AND THE COOLEST WONDER EVER!!!!!!! THANK YOU FOR THE AWESOME WONDER.

    PS: THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING!!!!!

    • We are SO excited to hear that you BOTH enjoyed the video for this Wonder of the Day® about Jack-O’-Lanterns, Aidan and Callum! It makes us happy to know families are learning TOGETHER when they visit Wonderopolis! :-)

  12. This was a very interesting wonder and I loved the video! I had no idea why people called jack-o-lanterns what they did, but now it makes a lot of sense! The myth about Jack is very cool, I learned it started from an Irish legend! I’ve always thought it was made up from stories about vampires and other Halloween creatures! I never thought it came from something Irish! Once I heard that pumpkins all started from a myth about vampires because they didn’t like the smell so it would keep them away. This story is way cooler. I always love carving my pumpkin during Halloween time!

    • This is a really great comment, Amanda! Thanks for leaving it for us today! We thought it was cool to learn the history of Jack-O’-Lanterns, too! Carving pumpkins at Halloween is a lot of fun, but the best part for us is picking just the right pumpkin! Do you like tall, skinny pumpkins best for carving, or short, round ones? :-)

  13. I thought that today’s wonder was really cool! I carve a pumpkin or two every year. It’s fun to take the seeds and the slimy orange stuff out. After we carve the pumpkins, we put them on our porch so trick-or-treaters can see them. We always get compliments! I also thought the video was cool! I hope you can come up with more awesome wonders!:) I have a question, though. What is your favorite wonder so far?

    • It’s really hard to choose which is our favorite Wonder, Luke! We love them ALL! We really mean that! Thank you for sharing how much fun you have carving pumpkins! We bet you have the best Jack-O’-Lanterns in your whole neighborhood! :-)

    • Hi, Kyle! We’re so happy that you liked exploring this Wonder of the Day®! Thanks for leaving us a comment to let us know! :-)

    • We’re glad you liked this Wonder, Gareth, and we hope you learned something new about the history of Jack-O’-Lanterns today! :-)

  14. THAT WAS SO AWESOME!!!!!!!! IT WAS LIKE IT WAS MAGICAL AND SP..SP…SPOOOOOOOOKKKKKKYYYYYYYYY. IT WAS SO AMAZING. YOU KEEP PUTTING VIDEOS LIKE THAT ON HERE AND I WILL DEFINITELY KEEP READING ON WONDEROPOLIS!

    • We’re so glad you liked the Jack-O’-Lantern video, Ashlyn! Thanks for letting us know just how much you did! We think you are an AWESOME Wonder Friend! :-)

  15. That JACK-O-LANTERN VIDEO IS AWESOME, but do you guys have a site on space, because I have always wondered about space.

    • YAY, we can’t wait to decorate our pumpkin this fall! HOORAY for fun festivities, Lauren! :) We hope you have a fun time designing your very special Jack-O’-Lantern! :)

  16. Why did Jack begin torturing people and why did he enjoy playing tricks on everyone? Did he have bad past, did he get bullied? In general, we learned that the jack o lantern may have stemmed from the marsh light or bog lights, which connects to the candle of a jack-o-lantern OR, did the lantern stem from an old Irish Legend? In general, Blystone’s 1st hour feels the Irish Legend is True!

    • Hi there, Wonder Friends in Mrs. Blystone’s 1st Hour! Happy Halloween!

      We’re not sure why Jack was so mean-spirited, he reminds us of Ebenezer Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” in a way. We were sad to learn that Jack was mean to others, which reminded us that it’s important to be kind to everyone!

      The Irish tale about mean ole Jack is one theory for how the Jack-O-Lantern got his name. Another relates to the marsh lights! We’re not certain how the Jack-O-Lantern came to be, but we sure like decorating them for Halloween! We hope you are all enjoying the holiday! :)

  17. Our 2nd hour wants to know if this is how “trick or treat” also stemmed and if you are asked to do a “trick” rather than given a treat… would one end up like Jack from the Irish Legend?
    Also, they made a connection- Is the headless Horseman Jack?

    • WOHOO, our Wonder Friends in Mrs. Blystone’s 2nd Hour are WONDERing about Halloween traditions today! We are very proud of all of you– you are using your imaginations today!

      We bet you’ll enjoy WONDERing about “trick-or-treating” with us by reading Wonder #393– Why Do You Say “Trick Or Treat”? http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-do-you-say-trick-or-treat/

      We Wonder if you can find out some more information about the headless horseman– you might be on to something! :)

  18. Where did the name pumpkin come from? We now understand jack-o-lantern, but still wonder where pumpkin itself came from. Also, why do we dress up in scary costumes if the jack o lantern is meant to ward off evil spirits? Isn’t that a conflict of intentions?

    • We are all smiles here at Wonderopolis because our Wonder Friends in Mrs. Blystone’s 3rd hour are here! You have been doing a great job WONDERing on your own today– we bet you can find lots of cool information about Halloween, especially today!

      We have a Wonder that will help answer some of your great questions: Wonder #743– What’s Your Favorite Halloween Costume? http://wonderopolis.org/wonder/whats-your-favorite-halloween-costume/

      “The tradition’s roots come from the Scottish custom of “guising.” Wearing costumes, masks or other forms of disguise began in Scotland in the late 19th century. Scottish children hoped to prevent evil spirits from doing harm by dressing like them.”

      Happy Halloween! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a jack-o’-lantern?
  • Were jack-o’-lanterns always made with pumpkins?
  • Can you design your own jack-o’-lantern?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

Ready to create your own homemade pumpkin carving design? Do you want a really scary pumpkin?

Or would you prefer a smiling pumpkin? Maybe you’d prefer to turn a pumpkin into your own unique artistic masterpiece… it’s up to you!

Check out these pumpkin carving templates. Feel free to choose one of these designs for your pumpkin, or use one of these designs as a starting point and modify it to fit your own vision.

When you have a finished design, enlist the help of an adult to help you carve your design into a pumpkin to create your very own homemade jack-o’-lantern!

Remember: Don’t try to carve a pumpkin by yourself. Be sure to ask an adult for help.

When you’re finished, email us or post a picture of your jack-o’-lantern on Facebook. We’d love to see what he — or she… or it! — looks like.

For more inspiration, check out these artistic jack-o’-lanterns. Can you make something this creative?

 

Still Wondering

Check out ReadWriteThink’s Pumpkin Carving Sequencer student interactive to show children how to place images in order to correctly represent the pumpkin carving process.

 

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