The True History of the Jack-O'-Lantern
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Take an evening walk tomorrow, and everywhere you will find crowds of glowing orange pumpkins: of various sizes, each with their own expressive, individual faces or with patterns carved into their flesh, all executed (with varying degrees of artistic skill) to decorate doorsteps, porches and windows alike.
When I think back to being a young girl, I don't recall pumpkin-carving, either as an activity or a decoration. Trick-or-Treating was not 'a thing': I never saw carved pumpkins on doorstops, or noticed their lights winking at me from darkened windows. They were confined to the yearly Halloween disco at the local village hall, perhaps, but never anywhere else.
Now an adult, I see Halloween decorations everywhere. Skeletons hang from open porches, gravestones sit crooked on front lawns, cobwebs and giant spiders adorn the neat hedges, ghosts swing from tree branches, and pumpkins – whether carved or not – flank front doors and clutter window sills.
Do you want me to tell you a truly spooky tale this Hallows Eve? Then pull your chair a little closer to the fire and listen carefully as I tell the history of the Jack-O'-Lantern…
It is not surprising that we see so many Halloween decorations: we live in close proximity to a number of American Air-Force bases, and a large percentage of houses are rented to American Forces personnel and their families. The pumpkin-carving craze is one that many of us see as being synonymous with America – and they do certainly maintain a monopoly when it comes to doing Halloween in style – but the story and the origins of this particular folklore began in Ireland, and was taken over to America by Irish immigrants.
So, do you want me to tell you a truly spooky tale this Hallows Eve? Then pull your chair a little closer to the fire and listen carefully as I tell the history of the Jack-O'-Lantern…
Many centuries ago, in rural Ireland, there lived a local scoundrel and drunk named Jack. Jack was a trickster, and one with enough daring to risk tricking even the Devil.
One night, Jack was on his way to his local pub. His notorious reputation had preceded him, so the Devil made sure to be there at the same time as him. Undaunted, Jack tempted the Devil into having a drink with him, but then refused to pay the bill to the landlord.
Convincing the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence so Jack could use him as payment, Jack instead put the coin into his coat pocket next to a small silver crucifix, trapping the Devil in the form of the sixpence. And there the Devil remained until he agreed to Jack's bargain: he would free the Devil only on the condition that he would leave him be, and promise not to claim his soul for the next decade. The Devil kept his word, but counted the days, months and years until they could meet again.
This time the Devil waited until Jack was staggering back through the fields to his house after a raucous night of drinking. In the darkness before him, the dim outline of the Devil could be seen. The Devil had not forgotten him, and this time he had come to claim Jack’s soul.
Never one to be outwitted, Jack begged the Devil to allow him one more fruit of the earth before he took his soul to Hell. He pointed to an apple tree to the side of the path. The unsuspecting Devil agreed, and climbed the apple tree for Jack, reaching for the juiciest of apples at the top. Sniggering and smiling at his own cunning, Jack quickly nailed small crucifixes all around the base of the tree, trapping the Devil in the branches. Frustrated that he had been fooled for a second time by this scoundrel, the Devil immediately demanded to know what deal Jack wanted to make in order to be freed again.
Jack asked for one simple thing: the Devil must promise Jack that he would never, ever claim his soul. Almost without hesitation, the Devil accepted the deal and was freed from the boughs of the tree, and Jack and the Devil parted ways once again.
It wasn’t long before Jack’s over-indulgent life led him to an early grave, and he passed away not too soon after his second encounter with the Devil. His spirit parted from his body and rose to Heaven where he met St. Peter at the great Heavenly Gates. Perhaps unsurprisingly, St. Peter sent him on his way to Hell: there was no chance of such a corrupt and wicked soul making its way into Heaven!
Jack plummeted to Hell where, at the gates, he met the Devil waiting for him for a third and final time. The Devil upheld his end of the bargain, and refused Jack entry to Hell.
Jack started to feel a little uneasy: if he couldn’t go to Heaven, and he couldn’t go to Hell, where could he go? The Devil laughed, and said he cared not. His soul, the Devil said, would have to wander the earth, belonging neither to Heaven nor Hell, doomed never find peace, never to rest. The Devil demanded he leave, so Jack turned and began to walk away.
Jack started to feel a little uneasy: if he couldn’t go to Heaven, and he couldn’t go to Hell, where could he go?
The Devil had won in the end, but was still frustrated at how many times he had been so foolishly tricked, so he plucked a burning coal and threw it at Jack. Jack caught the burning ember, and kept it, placing it inside a hollow turnip to use as a lamp to light his lonely way on the earth, restless and for eternity. Jack now wanders the earth, without hope of finding peace, without hope of finding rest, and will continue to wander until the end of time.
To ward off evil spirits like Jack’s, a tradition began in Ireland of carving faces in turnips and lighting them, hoping that the scary brightly-lit lanterns would frighten away lost souls. It was only when Irish immigrants moved to America that the tradition changed. Whether it was because they couldn’t as easily get hold of turnips in America, or whether it was simply much easier to carve and hollow-out a pumpkin than it is a turnip – it was the pumpkin that became the new Jack-O’-Lantern.