The jack-o’-lantern has a long history with Halloween, although our favourite scary faces haven’t always been carved out of pumpkins…
Pumpkins with ghoulish faces illuminated by candles are a sure sign of the Halloween season. The practice of decorating jack-o'-lanterns originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as early canvasses. In fact, the name, jack-o'-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the Devil for his own gain. When Jack died, God didn’t allow him into heaven, and the Devil didn’t let him into hell, so Jack was sentenced to roam the earth for eternity. In Ireland, people started to carve scary faces out of turnips to frighten away Jack’s wandering soul. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities.
According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavoury figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
Many people continued the celebration of Samhain, with its rituals of going from house to house in search of food and drink (trick or treating). As it was naturally dark in pre-industrial revolution Ireland, many would carve turnips, potatoes or other root vegetables and add coals or candles to create makeshift lanterns to help guide those celebrating. Occasionally these would be carved with faces, a tradition that continues to this day.