The Mystery of the Halloween Jack O’Lantern

Each Halloween, Americans run to commercial pumpkin patches and purchase odd-shaped, orange vegetables they carve out and make into happy or demonic faces. They place candles inside and perch the lit faces on windowsills.

The pumpkin has come to symbolize the holiday as much as ghouls, goblins, ghosts, and witches. But how many people know how the Jack O’Lantern has come to be associated with Halloween, and why the pumpkin has come to be used?

The answer seems to lie in an Irish folktale that goes something like this:

A long time ago, there lived an unfortunate soul, a stingy blacksmith named Jack, known far and wide for his quick temper and his constant state of drunkenness. One All Hallows Eve, after Jack had imbibed too much at his favorite pub and his life had begun to slip away, the Devil appeared.

“It’s time,” the Devil said to Jack.

“Time for what?” Jack slurred, his tongue soaked through with alcohol.

“You’re done for, and I’ve come for your soul.”

“I’ll give you my soul,” Jack replied, “but you’ve got to let me have one more drink before I die.”

The Devil agreed. Jack said he was short of money, so the Devil offered to turn himself into a sixpence in order to pay the bartender and speed up his mission. Jack immediately seized the opportunity, grabbed the coin, and pocketed it in his purse. Because Jack had a silver cross in his purse, the Devil could not change himself back. Now imprisoned, the Devil screamed at Jack to set him free. Jack said he would, but only if the Devil promised not to bother him again for a whole year. The Devil agreed.

During the next year, Jack tried to mend his ways. For a time, he was a good husband to his wife and a good father to his children. He attended church, he gave to charities, eventually though, Jack slipped back into his wanton ways.

The next All Hallows Eve, as Jack was heading home from the pub, the Devil appeared once again.

“It’s time,” the Devil said, standing in a jaunty pose along the side of the road.

This time, Jack did not need to ask, “Time for what?” He knew. Not too eager to die, and thinking quickly on his feet, Jack pointed to an apple tree standing nearby and said, “I’ll go with you, but first, could you get me an apple out of that tree over there?” Jack even offered to give the Devil a hand and hoist him up.

The Devil, not having learned from his previous encounter with Jack, and thinking he had nothing to lose, agreed. He jumped on Jack’s shoulders, climbed into the tree, plucked an apple, and threw it down. Jack caught the apple and whipped a knife out of his pocket, but instead of cutting the apple into bite-size pieces, he carved a cross into the tree trunk. Trapped once again, the Devil howled like a jackal to be released, which Jack agreed to do, but only if the Devil agreed never to bother him again. The Devil agreed and Jack released him.

A year later, Jack’s evil ways finally caught up with him and he died. When he tried to get into Heaven, he was told he could not enter. So he tried to get into Hell, but the Devil, still smarting from the way Jack had humiliated him in the past, refused to let Jack pass into Hell.

“I cannot get into Heaven,” Jack said. “I cannot get into Hell. Where can I go then?”

“You can go back where you came from,” the Devil bellowed.

With that, Jack sunk down to the ground. “The way back is cold, and windy,” he whimpered. “How shall I find my way? Can you at least provide me with some light?”

The Devil, being the kind creature that he was, threw Jack a piece of brightly burning coal straight from the fires of Hell. “That should help you find your way in the dark of limbo,” he said. To keep the piece of coal from blowing out in the wind, Jack put it into a turnip that he had been eating and was now hollowed out. Ever since that day, it has been Jack’s fate to wander in darkness with his lantern until Judgment Day.

And so, that is how the Jack of the lantern (Jack O’Lantern) became the symbol of a damned soul wandering the earth on All Hallows Eve.

One might ask, if Jack used a turnip, how does the pumpkin fit into the holiday story?

Due to the Irish potato famine (1845-1850), over 700,000 people immigrated to America, bringing with them their traditions of Halloween and Jack O’Lanterns. When they arrived, the Irish found that pumpkins were more readily available than turnips in the New World, so they substituted one vegetable for another.

Today, the carved pumpkin face is perhaps the most famous icon of the holiday.

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