It’s nearly impossible to get through the Halloween season without seeing a few Jack O’Lanterns. They are everywhere from your neighbor’s front porch to the design on your nephew’s trick-or-treat basket. Carving pumpkins is an autumn tradition in many households, and every year thousands of carving competitions are held worldwide. But where exactly did this tradition originate?
According to an old Irish legend, a man named Stingy Jack invited the devil for a hard drink one night. In an attempt to get out of paying, Jack convinced the devil to turn into a coin big enough to cover their tab. As soon as the devil did so, Stingy Jack etched a cross onto the coin– trapping the devil inside. Jack only released the devil after the two of them struck an agreement: the devil could not bother Jack for an entire year and could not claim Jack’s soul upon death (Taback, 1999).
After the year expired, the devil found Jack again. This time, Jack persuaded him to climb up into a tree to retrieve an apple. As soon as the devil reached the top of the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark, trapping him for a second time. This time, Jack insisted that the devil must leave him alone for ten years.
Shortly after the devil agreed to his terms, Stingy Jack passed away and thanks to his trickery, he was denied access to both Heaven and Hell. Instead, he was doomed to spend the rest of his life wandering around in the darkness of night with only a coal from hell, which he held in a carved turnip, to light his way. He become known as “Jack of the Lantern,” which eventually evolved to “Jack O’Lantern.”
To celebrate the legend and ward off the angry spirit of Stingy Jack, the people of Ireland started leaving carved potatoes, turnips, and beets on their doorsteps around Halloween. Irish immigrants eventually brought the tradition to America, where pumpkins were a plenty and much easier to carve than root vegetables– and thus, the Jack O’Lantern as we know it today was born.
Taback, S., & Reiner, R. (1999). Joseph had a little overcoat. New York. NY: Viking.