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A Haunted History of the Jack-O’-Lantern

A Haunted History of the Jack-O’-Lantern

By Thomas Olton, Master Carver at RISE of the Jack O'Lanterns

With Halloween just around the corner, it’s time to start decorating our homes in the spirit of the season. While I enjoy a plastic skeleton or witch’s cauldron as much as the next person, the best decoration of all has to be a jack-O’-lantern. I annually carve dozens of pumpkins for RISE of the Jack O’ Lanterns and am often asked, “Why do we even carve faces into pumpkins?” The answer may surprise you.

The tradition begins with an old Irish folk story: the tale of “Stingy Jack.” As the story goes, Jack was a local troublemaker who enjoyed tricking and swindling his fellow townspeople. One night Jack meets the devil in a tavern. After drinking together all night, Jack convinces the devil to transform into a coin so they can pay the bartender--the plan being that the devil would later transform back, thus cheating the tavern of payment. The devil, never one to resist a good trick, changes himself into a coin. Cunningly, Jack promptly places the coin in a purse that also contained a cross. Having trapped the devil with the cross, Jack demands that the devil, in exchange for his freedom, leave him alone for one year and that Jack cannot be accepted into hell if he should die. The devil accepted the deal.

A year later, the devil returned to claim the soul of the notorious trickster. Jack begged the devil to allow him one last meal before they departed to hell. The devil agrees and Jack asks that the devil pick him an apple from a nearby tree. As the devil climbed the tree to retrieve the apple, Jack carves a cross into the tree trunk, trapping him in the branches. Jack agrees to free the devil, but with the same conditions as their previous deal, only this time the agreement would last for a decade. Again, the devil is forced to comply.

Sometime later Jack becomes sick and dies. He is met at the gates of heaven and told that because of his dishonest life he may not enter. Dejected, he proceeds to the gates of hell. There he encounters the devil. He is reminded of their prior agreement that forbids the devil from allowing him into Hades either. Jack is told that, as his final punishment, he will be forced to walk the earth in the realm between heaven and hell. Before he leaves, the devil reaches down and tosses Jack a glowing ember that will burn forever, to light his way. Having nothing else to hold the ember, Jack hollows out a turnip to be used as a lantern. It is from this that he receives the name “Jack of the Lantern” later shortened to simply “Jack O’ Lantern.”

So it was in Ireland that, in the fall, children would carve their own version of Jack’s lantern. These were then hidden in hedges or on walls where they would frighten passersby. Later when an early form of trick-or-treating was adopted at the same time of year, the jack-o’-lantern was quickly adopted as part of the tradition. Children would carry the turnip lanterns as they went door to door asking for treats.

When Irish and Scottish immigrants came to America, they brought these traditions with them. They soon found that the native pumpkins were better suited for carving and more readily available than their more traditional turnips. It is here that we start to see the first pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns. Interestingly enough, as late as the 20th century, jack-o’-lanterns were carved and displayed throughout the entire fall. So, if you are like some of our pumpkin crazed artists at RISE of the Jack O’ Lanterns, and you want to keep the fun going by carving pumpkins well into November, it’s more than okay--it's tradition!

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