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Stingy Jack: The Origin of the Jack-O-Lantern

With Halloween approaching you are probably planning on heading to a pumpkin patch to find the perfect gourd to carve into a spooky Jack-O-Lantern. The tradition of carving pumpkins has been a mainstay in the United States for centuries but have you ever wondered why we do this? To discover the origins of this we have to travel back to Ireland and the story of Stingy Jack.

As legend has it there was a drunkard known as Stingy Jack because he never really wanted to pay for anything. One day he came across the Devil–as one does–and invited him to share a drink. Jack had to pay his tab at the local pub but didn’t have the coin on him. As a result he made a deal with the literal Devil in which he would trade his soul for the Devil to pay what Jack owed. So the Devil changed himself into a coin that would pay the bill but Jack made a tricky move. Instead of paying for his drink he put the Devil/coin in his pocket along with a small cross which prevented the Devil from changing back into his true form. Now eventually Jack decided that he would let the Devil go but he had one condition: he had to leave Jack alone for ten years. 

Illustration of Stingy Jack and the Devil by Jeremiah Witting-Akiona

Seeing no real alternative, the devil took this deal and let Jack live his crooked life for the next decade. When the time was up the Devil once again came across Stingy Jack leaving a pub. While you would think that the Devil would be on his guard after his last encounter with Jack, he was once again tricked by the man. This time Jack made the deal that he would go with the Devil as long as he could just have an apple by a nearby tree. He asked if the Devil could climb the tree and get one for him. The Devil, thinking this was just a small speed bump in the way of acquiring Jack’s soul, agreed and climbed the tree. While he was in the tree Jack made another tricky move. He carved a cross into the tree which prevented the Devil from descending. After begging and pleading to be let down Jack finally agreed, again with a caveat: the Devil could not claim Jack’s soul when he died. 

Years later Jack died and made his way to the Pearly Gates of Heaven where St. Peter looked over the events of his life and refused to let him in. He was then sent down to Hell where the Devil stuck with his agreement to not take Jack’s soul and also refused him entry. Jack was given a small ember of hellfire as his parting gift and was then sent to roam the Earth for the rest of time. In order to best carry his piece of hellfire Jack carved out a turnip to use as a lantern and began his never ending journey across the world and took on a new name: Jack of the Lantern. Because his soul never was able to be at rest the living took measures to keep him away from them in his roaming. They began carving faces into turnips and placing candles in them to ward off not only Jack but also any other evil spirits that may try to make their way into the lives of the living. 

Traditional Carved Turnip (Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once Irish immigrants made their way to America this tradition carried on with a slight change. Pumpkins, native to North America, were plentiful and so were used in place of the turnip. Today, centuries later, many around the world continue this tradition all thanks to the wandering spirit of a cheapskate trickster who made a deal with the Devil.

Happy Halloween!

Petr Kratochvil, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons





By: Hanna Gish

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