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What is a Jack-o-lantern?

Updated on September 28, 2010

Today, a jack-o-lantern is a hollowed-out pumpkin with a carved face or other design in it that is illuminated by a candle or light set down in the pumpkin.  Jack-o-lanterns are placed in windows and on doorsteps and are popular around Halloween. The history of the jack-o-lantern is rooted in an Irish legend going back hundreds of years into Irish history. This legend tells the story of Stingy Jack, who found himself wandering aimlessly between heaven and hell.

Stingy Jack was a mean, ill-spirited drunken man who spent most of his time playing tricks on his family and friends. Once, Stingy Jack met the Devil and cunningly tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree. Once the Devil was up in the apple tree, Stingy Jack stacked crosses around the trunk so that the Devil could not come down. Stingy Jack, afraid for the fate of his soul because of his constant deceptions and trickery, forced the Devil to promise that he would not take Stingy Jack’s soul when he died. The Devil made this promise, and Stingy Jack let him down out of the tree.

Many years later, Stingy Jack died. He went to the gates of Heaven to seek entry, but Saint Peter told him that he had been too cruel and conniving in life on earth and therefore could not enter Heaven. So Stingy Jack went down to Hell, but the Devil kept his promise and would not let Stingy Jack enter Hell either. He told Jack to turn around and Jack asked how he could do so since it was completely dark with no light. At this, the Devil threw him an ember from the flames of Hell to light his way. Stingy Jack burrowed the ember in a turnip, his favorite food that he always had with him. Being welcome in neither Heaven nor Hell, Jack’s fate was to wander in the darkness between the two forever, guided only by the light from his Jack-o-lantern.

This Irish legend inspired the Irish to put light in hollowed-out turnips, gourds, potatoes, and beets. They did so to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack from playing tricks on them. These were the original jack-o-lanterns. In the 1800s, when Irish immigrants came to America, they discovered that the pumpkins they found in America were larger and easier to carve and light, creating the jack-o-lanterns that we know today.

Image Credit: ms. Tea, Flickr


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    Pamela Lipscomb 7 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

    It is amazing how traditions get started. Thanks for the hub!