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History of the Jack O’Lantern

Posted by admin On April - 17 - 2011

History of the Jack O’Lantern

One of the most enduring symbols of Halloween is the Jack O’Lantern.  Today’s carved pumpkin was inspired by the Irish legend of Stingy Jack.  First, Stingy Jack tried to cheat the Devil using an elaborate series of tricks.  He invited the Devil to drink with him, and since he was “Stingy Jack,” he didn’t want to pay for his drink.  Instead, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin, and used the Devil coin to buy drinks.  In order to keep his lucky Devil money, Jack put a silver cross into his pocket with the coin, which prevented the Devil from turning back into himself.  The coin complained so much that Jack finally released the Devil on the condition he wouldn’t bother him for a whole year.  After a year, when the Devil returned eager for Jack’s soul, Jack once again tricked him, convincing him to climb a tree to pick an apple.  Once the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross in the tree bark, which trapped the Devil in the tree.  This time, Jack asked for a ten-year reprieve and made the Devil promise not to take his soul.

Soon after, of course, Jack died.  God, disapproving of Jack’s tricks, refused to allow him into Heaven.  By this time, the Devil thought it was fit punishment to refuse to allow Jack in Hell too.  He set Jack’s undead soul off wandering the earth with just a piece of burning coal to light his way.  Even an undead spirit wouldn’t want to carry a piece of hot coal in his bare hand, so Jack found a turnip, carved a hole in it, and stuck the coal inside.  Jack was doomed to wander the earth forever with his piece of coal inside a glowing turnip.

Irish people started calling Jack’s evil spirit “Jack of the Lantern,” which was shortened to Jack O’Lantern.  In order to ward off Jack and other evil spirits, people began carving turnips with scary faces and put candles inside, setting them on their windowsills at night, especially on All Hallows Eve.  Sometimes potatoes were used, and in England, people started carving Jack O’Lanterns out of beets.  When Irish immigrants arrived in America, they brought their tradition with them.  But pumpkins were much easier to carve and could hold much larger candles and lights, so turnips, potatoes and beets were left behind in favor of bright orange pumpkins.  The tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack O’Lanterns was born.

If you want to try an old-school turnip or beet Jack O’Lantern, turn the vegetable upside-down, hollow it out, and use the pointed root for its “cap.”  Turnip or beet Jack O’Lanterns are much harder to carve than pumpkins, but the root cap and round shape of the turnip or beet can produce some classic spooky effects.