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The History of Jack-O'-Lanterns: Carving Pumpkins On Halloween Originates In Celtic Tradition

Events | October 19, 2019

Carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns is a popular Halloween tradition that originated hundreds of years ago in Ireland. Source: (gettyimages.com)

Today, jack-o'-lanterns are a Halloween staple that almost single-handedly keep America's pumpkin farmers in business. Originally, though, the practice of carving comical or frightening faces into hollowed-out vegetables and lighting them from within had nothing to do with Halloween---even if it was just as spooky. Where did this tradition come from? How was it brought to America? Here’s the story of how jack-o'-lanterns came to be. 

The practice of carving out vegetables begins with a folk legend about Stingy Jack. Source: (halloween.fandom.com)

Who Was Stingy Jack?

In the 17th-century Europe, "jack-o'-lantern" just meant "a guy with a lantern," often a night watchman, but it was soon used to describe the ghostly lights that often appeared over bogs and marshes. People whispered that the lights had something to do with Stingy Jack, the subject of a folk tale dating back to the 1500s. According to legend, Stingy Jack was such a tightwad that he scammed the Devil himself. One day, Stingy Jack wanted a drink at the nearby tavern, but as his name implies, he was too cheap to pay for it himself, so he invited the Devil to join him. When it turned out the Devil had no cash on him, Jack suggested that the Devil transform himself into a coin that could be used to pay for the drinks. Honestly, the Devil comes off as kind of a rube in this story.

An old illustration of the Stingy Jack legend. Source: (richarddaybell.wordpress.com)

Stingy Jack's Deal with the Devil

After the Devil turned himself into a coin, Jack decided he wasn't thirsty after all. Instead of buying the drinks as promised, he pocketed the coin. Fortunately for Jack, he put the coin in the same pocket as his silver cross. The power of the silver cross prevented the Devil from turning back to ... well, not "normal," but whatever his red, horned deal was. Jack told the Devil he would only free him from his monetary prison if he agreed to leave him alone for one year's time, and if Jack should die during that timeframe, the Devil had to leave his soul alone. The Devil agreed to these terms and conditions. 

Stingy Jack tricks the Devil. Source: (aminoapps.com)

The Devil Came Back

In exactly one year, the Devil was back to get his revenge on Stingy Jack, but the Devil apparently hadn't shaken his uncharacteristic naïveté. Jack tricked him again, this time convincing the Devil to climb to the top of a tree to retrieve some fruit. After the Devil reached the tallest branch, Stingy Jack carved a cross into the tree, preventing the Devil from climbing down. Again, Stingy Jack offered a deal: He would let the Devil down from the tree if he promised to leave him alone for 10 years this time. The Devil agreed.

Stingy Jack was forced to roam the night with just a carved out turnip for light. Source: (artstation.com/stuharrington)

Stingy Jack Could Not Go to Heaven or Hell

Sure enough, before the 10 years were up, Stingy Jack died. True to his word, the Devil kept his nose out of it, but that put Jack's soul in a spiritual pickle because God didn't want it, either. His stingy ways had cost him his place in heaven, so the Devil took pity on his frenemy and offered him a burning chunk of coal to help light his way. Stingy Jack placed the glowing ember into a hollowed-out turnip with holes carved into it, and for the rest of eternity, Stingy Jack was doomed to walk the night, carrying his prototype jack-o'-lantern with him. If people caught sight of a strange light in the night, they blamed it on "Jack of the Lantern."

Who agrees that turnips make much scarier Jack-O-Lanterns. Source: (irishtimes.com)

From Turnips to Pumpkins and Beyond

The Irish and Scottish had long carved lanterns from vegetables, usually turnips, beets, or potatoes. They began placing on doorsteps or in windows to scare away evil spirits, specifically Stingy Jack, and children used them to scare their friends into thinking they'd seen Stingy Jack.

The use of pumpkins as Jack-O-Lanterns started in North America. Source: (visithalfmoonbay.com/garretramirez)

Coming to America

When immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and England came to North America, they brought the tradition of jack-o'-lanterns with them. Furthermore, they discovered in this new world an even more suitable vegetable to carve them from: pumpkins. Over time, the pumpkin became the vegetable of choice from which to carve jack-o'-lanterns because they were larger and easier to hollow out, facilitating more elaborate designs and faces. These immigrants also brought Halloween with them, so the traditions naturally blended, which is how immigration, agriculture, and one supernatural cheapskate gave us the tradition of carving pumpkins on Halloween.

Tags: Celtic Tradition | Halloween | History of Jack-O-Lanterns

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.