Each Halloween millions of Americans put out jack-o’-lanterns, whether they’re carved from fresh pumpkins or represented by some sort of plastic creation they bought in a store. But few people ever really wonder where the tradition came from. It’s just a tradition most of us have followed since we were kids. You might be surprised to discover that the story of jack-o’-lanterns, or at least the mythology behind it, is far more interesting than most of us realize.
The practice of decorating jack-o’-lanterns — the name comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack — originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as an early canvas. Irish immigrants came to America, home of the pumpkin, they brought the tradition with them and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities.
But who was Stingy Jack?
Stingy Jack, perhaps also known as Jack the Smith, Drunk Jack, and Jack of the Lantern, is a Faustian mythical character apparently associated with All Hallows Eve. It’s commonly believed that the “jack-o’-lantern” is derived from this character.
As the story goes, several centuries ago among the many of towns and villages in Ireland, there lived a drunkard known as “Stingy Jack”. Jack was known throughout the land as a deceiver, a manipulator and otherwise a dreg of society with little redeeming value. On a fateful night, the devil overheard the tale of Jack’s evil deeds and silver tongue. Unconvinced (and envious) of the rumors, the devil went to find out for himself whether or not Jack lived up to his vile reputation.
Jack was drunk and wandering through the countryside at night when he came upon a body on his cobblestone path. The body with an eerie grimace on its face turned out to be the Devil. Jack realized that this was his end; the devil had finally come to collect his malevolent soul. So Jack made a last request: he asked the devil to let him drink ale before he departed to hell. Finding no reason not to acquiesce the request, the devil took Jack to the local pub and supplied him with many alcoholic beverages.
Upon quenching his thirst, Jack asked the devil to pay the tab on the ale, to the devil’s surprise. Jack convinced the devil to transform into a silver coin with which to pay the bartender. Shrewdly, Jack stuck the now changed devil (coin) into his pocket, which also just happened to contain a crucifix. The crucifix’s presence prevented the devil from escaping his form, and thus coerced the devil to agree to Jack’s demand: in exchange for the devil’s freedom, the devil had to spare Jack’s soul for 10 years.
Ten years later to the date when Jack originally struck his deal, he found himself once again in the devil’s presence. Same as the setting before, Jack happened upon the devil and seemingly accepted it was his time to go to hell for good. As the devil prepared to take him to the underworld, Jack asked if he could have one apple to feed his starving belly. Foolishly the devil once again agreed to this request. As the devil climbed up the branches of a nearby apple tree, Jack surrounded its base with crucifixes. The devil, frustrated at the fact that he been entrapped again, demanded his release. As Jack did before, he made a demand: that his soul never be taken by the devil into hell. The devil agreed and was set free.
Eventually the drinking and unstable lifestyle took its toll on Jack; he died the way he lived. As Jack’s soul prepared to enter heaven through the gates of St. Peter he was stopped. Jack was told that because of his sinful lifestyle of deceitfulness and drinking, he was not allowed into heaven. The dreary Jack went before the Gates of Hell and begged for commission into underworld. The devil, fulfilling his obligation to Jack, could not take his soul. To warn others, he gave Jack an ember, marking him a denizen of the netherworld. From that day on until eternity’s end, Jack is doomed to roam the world between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember inside a hollowed turnip (“turnip” actually referring to a large swede) to light his way.
Thus the jack-o’-lantern came into the world, held by ol’ Stingy Jack himself, starting a tradition that stretches back to the Middle Ages.
Jack-o’-lanterns have also come to be associated with the legend of the Headless Horseman, to a lesser extent. The original myths of the Headless Horseman held that the horseman carried his severed, still animated head under his arm, which often was said to have a maniacal grin like a jack-o’-lantern. The head did not become an actual jack-o’-lantern until later adaptations of Washington Irving’s classic American tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” added it.