A Light for the Wandering Soul: The history of the Jack-O-Lantern

Each October as autumn colors captivate the earth, porches and homes are adorned with corn stalks, pumpkins, and other items in celebration of the harvest season.  Near the end of the month, many of those pumpkins are carved and transformed into Jack-o-Lanterns.  The season is embraced and is generally a great time for youngsters to trick-or-treat.  However, the history of the Jack-o-Lantern has a colorful past of its own.



In its early years, the term “Jack O’ Lantern” was used to describe a light that was rather mysterious.  It was seen at night over the marshes of Ireland.  As people tried to approach the light, it would recede remaining just out of reach.  This tale of the light was sometimes referred to as the Will O’ the Wisp and Ignis Fatuus.  In 1750, the legend of the mysterious light appeared in print for the first time.  In the writing, it was said to have been a nightwatchman carrying his lantern.



Despite the first mention of the light in print, the story of “Jack-of-the-lantern” grew out of Celtic folklore.  A folk tale about an Irishman fond of the drink and known for his stinginess grew into a tale about “Stingy Jack”, an Irish blacksmith.  It seems that Jack was in a pub on All Hallows Eve, and had been drinking a wee bit much when he ran into the Devil himself.  Jack, being quite clever and a trickster himself, decided to play a trick on the Devil who had summed him up as easy prey for the night.  Jack, stingy as he was, was looking for someone to buy him one last drink.  He made a deal with the Devil.  He offered to exchange his soul for the Devil’s purchase of one last drink for him.  He coaxed the Devil into turning himself into a sixpence, a coin, that he could use to purchase his drink.  This sounded easy to the Devil who quickly turned himself into the necessary coin.  But Jack was clever.  He took the coin and placed it in his coin bag which had a silver cross on it.  Jack knew that the cross would render the Devil powerless to change himself back.  The Devil was only able to gain his freedom by promising Jack not to claim his soul for a decade.



Ten years later as Jack was making his way home on a country road, he came face to face with the Devil again.  Jack again began to work his trickery.  He agreed to keep his end of the bargain but asked the Devil for a last request.  He told the Devil that if he was to leave the earth, he wanted just one more apple.  The Devil didn’t see the harm in honoring Jack’s request, so he climbed to apple tree to fetch the fruit for his prey.  Quick thinking Jack pulled out his knife and hurriedly carved a cross on the trunk of the tree the Devil had climbed.  The Devil was once again trapped by Jack.  He was forced into another bargain with this sly one.  He agreed that he would never again come to claim the soul of Jack.



Jack was however, a mortal.  He, like all humans, died.  His drunken and stingy character on earth caused him to be denied entrance to heaven.  His should made it way to hell, but the Devil was bound by his agreement to never again claim his soul and had to turn Jack’s soul away.   According to the legend, the Devil gave Jack one last parting gift, a burning ember to light his way as he roamed the Earth doomed to darkness evermore.



They say Jack placed the ember into a carved-out turnip and began his wandering of the planet.  The Irish embellished the tale and began referring to Jacks damned soul and his glowing ember in the turnip (sometimes in other vegetables) as “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O-Lantern.”



Throughout the land, in Ireland and in Scotland, people began carving scary features on the turnips and potatoes.  They placed them in their windows on All Hallows Eve to ward off evil spirits such as Stingy Jack who were plagued the land.



Besides turnips and potatoes, beets were also used for these early Jack O’Lanterns.



As people from Ireland, England, and Scotland braved the ocean and a new world in America, they brought with them their beliefs and traditions.  “Jack O’Lantern” came with them to this new world.  The colonists found life here difficult but stumbled upon a new fruit that would make carving a “Jack O’Lanter” much easier.  The pumpkin was ideal.  It was already pretty much hollow and was much larger.  It wasn’t long before turnips, potatoes, and beets were replaced with the orange pumpkins of North America.  Today, the pumpkin “Jack O’Lanterns are the most widely recognized symbol of Halloween in the world.

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