Morning Coffee: History of the Jack O’Lantern

halloweenHalloween! It’s that time of year again when countless pumpkins go under the knife to create scary, and sometimes not-so-scary, Jack O’Lanterns. They’ll sit in windows, on front porches and lawns, lit from inside, to welcome all the little trick-or-treaters. But why do we do it? Whoever thought of carving a face into a hollowed-out pumpkin and then lighting it with a candle?

The name comes from an old Irish folktale about a man named “Stingy Jack”.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

The Irish and Scots used turnips and potatoes to recreate Jack’s lantern. The English used large beets. The “lanterns” were placed in windows and near doorways to frighten away Stingy Jack’s ghost, and any other spirit that might happen to wander by. When the Irish immigrants brought the tradition with them to this country the much larger pumpkin, a native fruit, became their new favorite and soon a part of the Halloween tradition.


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