A jack-o-lantern is a carved pumpkin used to hold a light. The light glows through the holes in the carving, creating a distinctive glowing image. Jack-o-lanterns are traditionally produced around Halloween in North America, especially in the United States, and various versions of this tradition can be seen in other regions of the world as well. In late October, many North American grocers stock pumpkins in large quantities to meet the demand for pumpkins to carve.
The roots of the jack-o-lantern tradition are quite old. Carved vegetable lanterns have been associated with the harvest season for many generations, and some cultures have a tradition of placing a lantern on the stoop on Halloween, also known as All Hallow's Eve, either to frighten or draw the spirits, depending on cultural values. Carved turnips were popular in Britain and Ireland, while some other European communities favored using brass or tin lanterns.
According to legend, “Jack” is a real person who managed to trick the devil on All Hallow's Eve, although the lantern doesn't figure into all stories. In some tales, the jack-o-lantern is a deceitful fairy or spirit who uses a light to draw people away from a safe path so that they can be attacked. Furthermore, well through the 1700s, night watchmen were known as Jack o' Lanterns, reflecting the use of “Jack” as a generic male name and the fact that watchmen would of course carry lanterns along their routes.
Typically, a jack-o-lantern is made by cutting the top from a pumpkin, carving out the seeds and stringy material inside, and then carving a pattern into the flesh of the pumpkin. Some people get quite elaborate, shaving off layers of the pumpkin to create layers of shading, and a chimney may be included to draw the heat out of the pumpkin so that it does not rot. Jack-o-lanterns may also be made by painting whole pumpkins, allowing people to extract the flesh of a jack-o-lantern later for use in a pie.
People commonly carve faces onto their jack-o-lanterns, making the eyes, nose, and mouth glow. However, various scenes, abstract designs, and other patterns can be carved into the pumpkin, and some communities hold pumpkin carving contests in which people attempt to come up with the most creative design. Carved pumpkins often adorn the steps, windows, or porches of homes offering Halloween candy, and they are also used as generic decorations in stores and restaurants in the weeks leading up to Halloween.