The toothy grins of jack-o-lanterns are as much a part of Halloween as candy corn and costumes. Even though these carved pumpkins have become synonymous with Halloween, the festive gourds weren’t always tied to the October holiday.
The history behind jack-o-lanterns is not entirely known and there are multiple origin stories, but people may have been making these carvings for centuries.
One tale traces the origin back to Ireland and a popular Irish myth. According to History.com, the tradition involves a man nicknamed ‘Stingy Jack.’ As the story goes, Stingy Jack invited the devil to share a drink with him. Being the cheapskate his name implies, Jack didn’t want to pay for the drinks, and he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy the beverages. After the devil transformed, Stingy Jack instead pocketed the money and placed it next to a silver cross, which prevented the devil from changing back into his original form. Jack made the devil promise that should Jack die, he wouldn’t claim his soul. Eventually Jack freed the devil, but not before he tricked him again with another con.
When Stingy Jack eventually died, legend states God would not allow such a trickster and unsavory character into heaven. The devil could not claim Jack’s soul as promised, but he was upset by the tricks Jack had played. In turn, the devil then sent Jack off to wander the dark night infinitely with only a burning coal to light the path. Stingy Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been traversing the planet ever since. Irish storytellers first began to refer to Jack’s specter as ‘Jack of the Lantern.’ Eventually the name was shortened to ‘Jack O’ Lantern.’
There are other origin stories regarding jack-o-lanterns. Some say the term originated in 17th century Britain, where it was often customary to call men whose names were unknown a common moniker like ‘Jack.’ Night watchmen who carried lanterns might have been called ‘Jack with the lantern.’
Other theories connect jack-o-lanterns to the Celtic pagan practice of hallowing out root vegetables and carving them with grotesque faces. Illuminated by coal or candles, these items served to ward off evil spirits. When settlers came from Europe to America, where turnips and other root vegetables were scarce, they used native pumpkins instead.
Jack-o-lanterns are often seen lighting up the Halloween night. There are various theories regarding the origins of the carved gourds. While the truth may never be fully known, it’s fun to learn about the various origin stories connected to this popular symbol of Halloween.