The Origin of the Jack O’ Lantern

Each October, thousands of families around the country gather to pick out their favorite pumpkins, bring them home, and carve faces into their surface. This fun Halloween activity has been an American tradition for years—it’s a unique way to spend time with family and friends while showing some Halloween spirit. However, despite its popularity, many people don’t know why we carve pumpkins, or where this tradition came from.

Jack O’ Lanterns actually originated in Ireland—which, fittingly, is where the holiday came from. Legend has it that there was once a young man named Stingy Jack who invited the Devil out for some drinks (casual trip to the bar, I know). When the night ended, however, Jack had no money to pay for the tab; instead, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a gold coin to cover the costs. The Devil agreed, but instead of using the coin to pay for the drinks, Jack put it in his pocket with a crucifix, trapping him. Jack promised him freedom only if he promised not to take revenge—and not to claim his soul when he died. The Devil agreed, and Jack was safe. Years later, the two met up again, this time at a small farm outside of town. Jack asked him to climb a tree to get him some fruit, and the apparently-very-gullible Devil agreed. While he was in the tree, however, Jack carved a cross into the base of the tree, trapping him for a second time. He made the same deal: The Devil would be free, and in return, he would not take Jack’s soul or take revenge for the trick. 

Of course, eventually Jack died (maybe he should have thrown immortality or something on top of his ransom). When he arrived at the gates of heaven, however, God denied him entrance, due to his life of trickery and sin. So, Jack went to the gates of hell, seeking refuge. Keeping with his promise, the Devil refused to take his soul—he instead condemned him to wandering the Earth as a lost soul for the rest of eternity. As a gift, the Devil gave him a single burning coal from hell to light his way. Jack carved a turnip to hold the coal as a lantern, and the legend says that he has been wandering the Earth ever since as Jack of the Lantern—or Jack-O’-Lantern. The ‘ghost lights,’ or will-o’-wisps, that sometimes appear over marshes are said to be from his light.

In the past, the Irish had been known to carve vegetables such as potatoes, beets, and turnips and fill them with lights to celebrate the fall harvest. However, as the legend of Stingy Jack became more and more well-known, children began to steal the carved vegetables and wander around with them, trying to prank their friends and neighbors. As time went by, they even began to carve faces into them in an attempt to make them look like the heads of decapitated corpses. 

When settlers began to civilize America, they brought the tradition of vegetable carving with them. They quickly discovered that the American pumpkin was a perfect candidate for carving; they were large, easy to clean out, and had plenty of room for a candle or other light inside. Children also continued to engrave faces into their pumpkins, trying to prank the people around them. Eventually, the two traditions combined, giving us the pumpkin carving that we know and love.

Today, we use carved pumpkins to decorate our porches and windowsills for the Halloween holiday. We create Jack-O’-Lanterns in the shape of bats, skulls, monsters, witches, and anything else—they are our own personal canvases, and we have the freedom to make them how we wish. So, next time you sit down to decorate your pumpkin for the fall season, remember where this tradition came from, and always watch out for the soul of Stingy Jack!