If there is one universal symbol that many associate with Halloween, it would have to be the image of a bright, orange pumpkin with a face carved into it. People leave Jack-o-lanterns on their porches, children carry plastic versions to carry candy for trick-or-treating, and it’s even the logo for the horror film Halloween. But what is the history behind the Jack-o-lantern? How did people end up cutting happy or sinister faces into pumpkins?
Most trace the origins of the Jack-o-lantern to an old Irish myth dating back several centuries ago (ironic considering Ireland has no pumpkins). Supposedly, there was a miserable individual with a quick temper named Jack, as well as Jack the Smith, Jack the Drunk, or more infamously as Stingy Jack, who was known for playing tricks on just about anyone, ranging from friends, family, to even the Devil.
One night on All Hallows Eve, Stingy Jack was unsurprisingly drinking at a local pub. Eventually, he encountered the Devil, who told Stingy Jack that he wanted Jack’s soul. Jack invited the Devil to drink with him, and after an indeterminate amount of ale, Jack revealed that he didn’t have any money and that the Devil should pick up the tab. Since the Devil obviously didn’t have any money, Jack suggested the Devil take the form of a silver coin. Once the Devil changed form, Jack placed the coin in his wallet which also contained a crucifix, preventing the Devil from reverting to his original form. Eventually, Jack agreed to let the Devil out with the agreement that the Devil would not bother him for one year, and that if Jack should ever die, the Devil would not claim his soul.
One year later, the Devil returned to Stingy Jack, who was still a deceitful nuisance on society. This time, Jack was wandering around when the Devil told him to accompany him to Hell. However, noticing an apple tree, Jack asked the Devil to provide him with an apple for his starving belly. Because of how considerate (or foolish) the Devil apparently is, he then climbed up into an apple tree to get an apple. While he was up in the tree, Stingy Jack then either carved a crucifix into the tree bark or surrounded the trunk with crucifixes. Regardless, the Devil was unable to come down and was thus trapped in the tree. Again, Jack made a deal with the Devil that he not bother Jack for ten more years, a deal which the Devil was forced to accept.
Unfortunately for Stingy Jack, he died almost a year later. Ascending to Heaven, Jack was suddenly stopped by God at the pearly gates. God was not willing to allow a deceiver and a drunk like Jack into Heaven, and thus consigned him to Hell. However, true to his word, the Devil kept his end of the bargain and did not allow Jack to enter Hell.
At this point, Jack found himself afraid because he was now unable to enter Heaven nor Hell, which meant he would be forced to enter the Netherworld, a dark limbo between Heaven and Hell. When Stingy Jack asked the Devil how he could leave when there was no light, the Devil tossed him an ember to help light his way around the Netherworld. It just so happened Jack had some turnips (his favorite food) on him, so he took one, hollowed it out, and placed the ember that the Devil had given him inside to act as a lantern to light his way. While some legends say Jack wandered the Netherworld, others say he was forced to wander the Earth, although this is when Stingy Jack became known as Jack-of-the-Lantern, or Jack-O-Lantern, or Jack-of-the-Turnip, although the latter isn’t as well known today.
The Irish and the Scottish began carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes, then placing them in windows or near doors in order to scare away Jack as well as other evil spirits during the Celtic holiday of Samhain (actually pronounced “sow wan”), meaning “Summer’s end” which is celebrated from sundown on October 31st to sundown on November 1st. Aside from protection, Jack-o-lanterns were also meant to welcome the deceased loved ones. Originally, hot coals were used to provide illumination, although these were later replaced by candles. The holiday of Samhain was a celebration of deceased family members, since it was believed that on that night the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest.
Eventually during the 1800’s Irish immigrants arrived in the United States of America, and brought their traditions with them. However, even though turnips weren’t as widespread in the U.S. as in Ireland, the immigrants soon found that pumpkins, which weren’t found in Europe, were much better suited to be used as Jack-o-lanterns, and the tradition (if not the story) soon caught on.
Today, Jack-o-lanterns are a staple of Halloween, and Halloween itself, even without the religious significance it once had, has become one of the most popular holidays in the U.S. It is only fitting that perhaps the most important symbol of Halloween has an equally chilling story behind it.