With Halloween right around the corner, everywhere we look we see the orange and black color scheme, decorations of skeletons, ghouls, witches, and ghosts. When you go into the city, you see store aisles and occasionally entire stores dedicated in celebration of the darkest holiday of the year.
On this day of vampires, witches, and skeletons, there is one icon that stands above the rest as the king of Halloween: the Jack-o’-Lantern. But where did the idea of the Jack-o’-Lantern come from? To answer that question we have to go back to an ancient story.
The Story of Stingy Jack
In Ireland, a story dating back to the 1500s revolved around a guy named Jack. Jack, often described as a blacksmith, invited the devil to have a drink with him. Jack was an extremely greedy man and didn’t want to pay for his drink. He convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so he could use him to pay for the drinks. When the devil granted this wish, Stingy 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. In time, Jack did let the devil go, but only under the condition that if he died the devil would not claim his soul or bother him for one full year.
The next year, Jack again tricked the devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. Apparently, the devil is a sucker. 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 he promised Jack that he would not claim his soul if anything happened to him, and he wouldn’t be allowed to bother him for ten more years. Soon after that, Jack died.
As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into Heaven. When Jack appeared at the gates of Hell, the devil kept his word and would not allow Jack in. Instead, he gave Jack a burning coal and sent him away into the darkness of the night. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since.
The Jack-o’-Lantern is Born
The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and eventually the name shortened to “Jack-o’-Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets were used in this tradition. Immigrants from these countries brought the Jack-o’-Lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect Jack-o’-Lanterns.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Jack-o’-Lanterns became a decorating standard. An 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta is one of the earliest instances of the Jack-o’-Lantern as Halloween decoration. The mayor’s wife had several pumpkins carved with faces and lit from within. They were placed around the party. Today Jack reigns over America’s windowsills and front porches every October 31st.
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