The history of the Jack o’ Lantern is really a combination of several different traditions and myths. The oldest tradition goes back to a Celtic New Year’festival and the newest goes back just a couple of hundred years to when farmers carved pumpkins as a part of the harvest.
Irish immigrants most likely brought the name Jack o’ Lantern to the United States. They had an old folk tale about an old ner’ do well named Jack, or “Stingy” Jack. The story of Jack has several versions, but they all go something like the following.
Stingy Jack was a mean old drunk who the devil thought was ready to die. The devil came to him to take his soul, but Jack talked the devil into letting him have a whiskey first. As the story goes, the devil was to turn himself into money to pay for the drink. When he did this, Jack took the money and put it in his pocket next to a cross. Because of the cross, the devil was not able to change himself back into the devil again and had to make a bargain with Jack. Jack got his soul back.
There is another version where the devil is tricked into going up a tree and then Jack carves a cross in the tree to prevent the devil from climbing down the tree to claim his soul. There are also stories that combine these two versions, having Jack trick the devil twice. At the end of any of the stories is Jack’death. He has been such a bad man that he is not allowed into heaven and is sent to Hell. He is also refused admittance at the gates of hell because the devil is still mad at him about the trick. Not being able to get into either heaven or hell, Jack is to spend eternity roaming the earth.
Either Jack is given a chunk of coal to light his way or the devil throws pieces of burning coal at him to torment him. Jack carries these pieces of coal in a hollowed out turnip to light his way while he wanders the earth.
Just like there are several versions of Jack’deal with the devil and the reason for the burning coal, there are also several versions about why the Jack o’ Lanterns are placed on porches. The most popular version is that the burning coal (replaced with candles) is set out in case Jack’flame burns out. The family sets out the flame in the carved out turnip, or gourd, so that Jack can take it if he needs it and won’t bother the family.
It is not clear that the Jack o’ Lantern was used in Ireland in association with the tale. Although the ancient Celts did carve faces in vegetables and light them on what is now Halloween (but what they thought of as New Years Eve), the practice was not associated with the story of Jack. Rather, the Celts lit the carved faces on the night that they felt the dead were able to come back to life. The carved faces were meant to either welcome benevolent spirits or scare away malevolent spirits.
At the time that the story of Jack was popular in Ireland, it had nothing to do with the October 31st celebrations. Once the Irish migrated to America, they found farmers hollowing out pumpkins as a part of harvest celebrations. At that time, the ancient Celtic tradition, the folk legend of Stingy Jack and the practice of carving pumpkins came together and became the tradition of carving pumpkins on Halloween.