Every year as Halloween nears thoughts turn to decorations, costumes, parties, and lots of candy (yummm, candy corn). But one of the things most associated with Halloween is the Jack-o-Lantern. The tradition of carving pumpkins and putting lit candles inside each October has evolved from simple cutouts into an art form. Pumpkin artists everywhere create the silly and the intricate, using pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, and displaying only one on a porch to thousands in festivals.
Displays like these are what we most often think of when we think of jack-o-lanterns; but the jack-o-lantern actually has deep historical roots and didn’t even involve a pumpkin originally. The name “Jack-o-Lantern” dates from the 17th century, when it literally meant “man with a lantern” (i.e., a night watchman). Those original jack-o-lanterns were carved from turnips—pumpkins didn’t exist in Ireland—based on the legend of Stingy Jack.
According to the story, Stingy Jack was an Irish blacksmith and notorious drunk who had the great misfortune to run into the Devil [or maybe it was the Devil’s misfortune to run into Jack] in a pub. Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence that Jack could use to buy their drinks in exchange for Jack’s soul. Once the Devil did so, however, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack and not try to claim his soul for ten years. When the ten years had passed, Jack ran into the Devil again as he walked down a country road. The Devil was anxious to claim what was his due but Jack stalled. Thinking quickly, Jack said to the devil “I’ll go, but before I go, will you get me an apple from that tree?” The Devil, thinking he had nothing to lose, climbed the tree as Jack pointed to the choicest apple. Once the Devil was high up in the tree, Jack surrounded the tree with crosses so the Devil could not come down. Very proud of himself, Jack made the Devil promise to never again ask him for his soul. Seeing no other choice, the Devil reluctantly agreed.
When Jack died, as the legend goes, he went to the pearly gates of Heaven but was not allowed to enter. He then went down to Hell, but the Devil, keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack to enter there. With nowhere to go but the dark Netherworld between Heaven and Hell, Jack begged the Devil to at least give him a light to find his way. The Devil tossed Jack a burning coal from the fire of Hell to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has roamed the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then simply “Jack O’Lantern.” Today we commonly spell it jack-o-lantern or jack-o’-lantern.
In Ireland and Scotland, people believed that spirits and ghosts could enter their world on Halloween. Not wanting to be visited by these ghosts, people would set food and treats out to appease the roaming spirits and began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. Irish immigrants brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them to the United States in the 1800s. They soon found that pumpkins made perfect jack-o’-lanterns since they were softer and easier to carve than the turnips and potatoes of their homeland.
So the next time you carve a jack-o-lantern, remember the lesson of Stingy Jack.