Jack-o-lanterns, those pumpkins with carved out faces, are a part of Halloween tradition. Every year, communities and schools hold contests to choose the biggest pumpkin in the patch, the scariest face, silliest face, or some other related category. This practice of carving faces on hollowed out pumpkins did not originate in the United States and so was not originally done on pumpkins at all.
A story in Irish folklore is most often associated with how jack-o-lanterns came into existence. There are several versions of this story but they all point to the same conclusion. This is a story about a man named “Stingy Jack” and the Devil.
A long time ago, Jack met up with the Devil and suggested they have a drink. The old Devil thought that sounded pretty good so he agreed. When it came time to pay the bill, Stingy Jack didn’t want to part with his money so he cajoled and pleaded with his drinking companion until they struck a deal. At last, the agreement was that the Devil would turn himself into a coin and Jack would use that coin to pay for their drinks.
Jack, being a cunning, stingy person, waited until his drinking partner had changed before he continued with his plan. Instead of paying for their drinks, he put the coin in his pocket where he also had a silver cross. This really made the Devil angry because the cross made it impossible for him to change back to his recognizable form. He told Jack he would not bother him for an entire year and would not claim his soul if he died before the year was up. Both of them thought this was a suitable arrangement and they went their separate ways.
The next year, the two drinking companions met near a tree. Jack saw the ripened fruit and thought what a good snack it would make but he didn’t want to climb up high to get it. He had been successful outsmarting the Devil last year so he came up with a new plan. As the Devil was up in the tree picking the fruit, Jack carved a cross into the tree trunk. The cross blocked any chance of the Devil coming down from the tree so that gave Jack time to negotiate. The Devil agreed not to bother Jack for the next 10 years.
After Jack died, he wasn’t allowed into heaven because of all the cunning, underhanded deals he’d made with the Devil. True to his word, the Devil would not claim this newly departed soul — not because he was known for keeping his promises, but because he resented all the trickery aimed at him. Instead, he gave Jack a piece of burning coal, Jack put the coal in a hollowed out turnip and, to this day, roams the earth. Over time, he became known as “Jack of the Lantern” and later, “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, faces were carved in turnips and potatoes. A lit candle was put inside and jack-o-lanterns were set in windows and next to doors to ward off evil spirits. When Stingy Jack saw the lanterns, he knew he couldn’t use his trickery on that household. Large beets were also used for the same purpose. When Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived in America, they continued making jack-o-lanterns for Halloween out of a native fruit — the pumpkin.
Written by: Cynthia Collins
History of the Jack O’Lantern