The Jack of All Lanterns

Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween? The answer involves shady deals with the devil, Irish folklore, and some scary-looking turnips.

An Irish legend holds that a man named “Stingy Jack” had a drink with the devil one day. True to his name, Jack didn’t want to buy the drinks, so he tricked the devil into turning himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Instead of using the coin, Jack put the money in his pocket next to his trusty silver cross—which, according to folklore, prevents the devil from transforming back into his original shape.

Well, now it was time for the devil to make a deal with Jack. The devil convinces Jack to let him free on the condition that when Jack dies, the devil will not claim his soul. But Jack has been a bad boy—when he dies, Jack is not worthy for heaven, but the devil also won’t accept him into hell, as they agreed. Instead, the devil sends Jack off into the darkness with only a burning ember to illuminate his way. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the burning ember inside to create a lantern. The soul of “Jack of the lantern” has wandered the earth ever since, with only the lantern to illuminate his way.

Based on this account, the Irish copied Jack’s lantern by hollowing out turnips or potatoes and carving demonic faces onto them. Lighting up these diabolical lanterns was thought to scare off Jack’s wandering soul and other evil spirits.

turnip lantern
Photo by Bodrugan, October 31, 2012, CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Irish immigrants to the United States brought this tradition with them, using pumpkins rather than turnips in the New World. Though jack-o’-lanterns were not originally associated with Halloween, it wasn’t too far of a jump to display spooky decorations during a holiday of haunts and howls.

This is just one of many holiday traditions that come from legends about the supernatural that went through a process of synthesis with other beliefs and traditions.

What’s your favorite Halloween tradition?

Sources

Grannan, Cydney. “Why Do We Carve Pumpkins at Halloween?” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/story/why-do-we-carve-pumpkins-at-halloween.

History.com Editors. “How Jack O’Lanterns Originated in Irish Myth.” Updated October 28, 2019. History. https://www.history.com/news/history-of-the-jack-o-lantern-irish-origins.

“The History behind Pumpkins and Halloween.” Halloween Express. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.halloweenexpress.com/the-history-behind-pumpkins-and-halloween/.

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