What Are the Origins of the Term “Jack O’ Lantern”?


Jack-o-lantern_portraitHalloween, or All Hallows Eve, is upon us! Kids as Ninja’s and Princesses will soon haunt the streets begging for treats.

When I was a kid, the sure welcome sign that a house was open for sweet giveaways was that they had a lit pumpkin, or Jack-o-Lantern, on the front porch or windowsill. No Jack? You get jack.

But have you ever wondered where the term Jack-o-Lantern came from? Of course, it seems obvious that it should relate back to some kind of person named Jack who may have carried a lantern at some point in h is life, but who was Jack?

Although, you can find many variations out there on the fable surrounding this character, my favorite version is this one: For centuries the people of Ireland attempted to explain the mysterious phenomenon of the light flares from the bogs and marshes as legends of one “Stingy Jack” – a blacksmith who was destined to wander the bogs for all eternity carrying a coal-lit gourd he had received from the Devil after he had been denied entry to both Heaven and Hell.

Legend Has It

Stingy Jack invited the Devil for a drink one night. When Jack didn’t want to pay the tab, he convinced the Devil to shape-shift into a coin, which he did. Instead of paying the bar wench, Jack pocketed the coin, placing it side by side the silver cross he kept in his pocket. The devil was stuck. (Apparently, crosses cancel all powers of the devil, like they do for vampires.)

This wasn’t the only time Jack duped the devil! Another time (after he had release the devil from being a coin) he convinced the devil to climb a tree to get them both the rippest fruit. But Jack had put a cross up in the branches and the devil couldn’t get down! Both times, when the devil returned to his form, Jack made him swear that he would not claim Jack’s soul when he died, and each time the devil promised he wouldn’t….well, when Jack finally died and was denied entry to heaven (I guess, St. Peter doesn’t like stingy, deceitful behavior), he shuffled off, tail between his legs, to the gates of hell. But, the devil kept his promise and turned Jack away too, sending him off with a burning ember from the fire pit to put in his carved out gourd (probably a turnip) to light his way as he lived out his own hell on earth for eternity, thus becoming “Jack with the Lantern”, or “Jack O’ Lantern”.
Old World Tale, New World Traditions

To celebrate the fall harvest, making vegetable lanterns was a tradition on the British Isles (turnips, beets, potatoes), and these traditions were adopted by and adapted in the New World. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie and trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins soon took over from turnips, and faces were added to increase the creep factor simulating Stingy Jack’s dis-embodied head. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname now named every glowing pumpkin on every stoop, beckoning tricksters to come closer. The better the trick, the sweeter the treat.

When I was a kid, my dad made sure we all had a trick in case someone asked us for one. In those days, the question “Trick Or Treat” was taken seriously. Some neighbors opted for the “trick option”! Good thing I knew how to sing! My loot bag (usually a pillowcase was full!


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