The History of the Jack O’Lantern

Have you and your family picked a pumpkin to carve for Halloween night? Maybe you’re planning to carve a scary face so the trick-or-treaters who visit your house will be spooked. Although pumpkins are a central part of Halloween celebrations in America, the first Jack O’Lantern was not a pumpkin.

According to Irish legend, a mean drunk known as Stingy Jack was always playing tricks on his neighbors and family members. One day, he tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick fruit. While the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s trunk. This prevented the Devil from climbing back down. While the Devil was stuck in the tree, Jack made him promise not to take Jack’s soul. The Devil promised and Jack helped him get down.

Though the Devil had sworn not to take his soul, nothing could prevent Jack from eventually dying. First, Jack tried to enter the gates of heaven. He was turned away because he had been so mean to everyone while he was alive. Jack’s only alternative was to go down to hell and see the Devil. Of course, the Devil refused to let Jack enter because he already promised not to take Jack’s soul. The Devil told Jack he must wander around in the darkness between heaven and hell for eternity. At this point, Jack panicked and asked the Devil how he could wander in the dark without any light. In response, the Devil threw Jack a burning ember. Jack had a turnip in his pocket, so he hollowed out the turnip, placed the ember inside, and used it to light his way.  The Irish referred to Jack as “Jack of the Lantern,” and later “Jack O’Lantern.”

Photo by Toby Ord, Oct. 2003

Photo by Toby Ord, Oct. 2003

To ward off evil spirits and keep Jack away, people in Ireland hollowed out turnips, gourds, potatoes and beets and placed a candle in them on All Hallows Eve. When Irish immigrants came to America, they brought the tradition of the Jack O’Lantern with them. They discovered that the pumpkin, which is native to America, was much easier to carve out than a turnip or potato. As a result, pumpkins began to be used as Jack O’Lanterns.

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