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How Pumpkins Became Jack-O-Lanterns

Updated on October 4, 2014

The Merging of Two Irish Traditions

Pumpkins with faces carved on them or Jack-O'-Lanterns are the universal symbol of Halloween. In modern culture Halloween has come to be associated with the supernatural and horror. But this still leaves the questions why pumpkins? and how did carved pumpkins come to be known as Jack-O'-Lanterns?

The answer to these two questions can be found in the ancient Irish origins of the Halloween holiday and the old Irish folktales about the adventures of a rogue named Stingy Jack.

While the tales of Stingy Jack originated separately from Halloween, both involved spirits of the dead roaming the world, making it logical that the two traditions would merge and in the merging of these two traditions is the answer to the questions of how pumpkins came to be associated with Halloween and why they are called Jack-O'-Lanterns.

The Grim Reaper
The Grim Reaper | Source

Halloween and the Ancient Celtic Festival of Samhain

As I explained in an earlier Hub, Holidays - The Origins of Halloween, Halloween originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in) which was celebrated on October 31st.

The Samhain holiday marked a change in season from summer to autumn and the ancient Celts believed that during this change from summer to autumn the wall that separates the world of the living from the world inhabited by the spirits of the dead was lowered allowing spirits of the dead to visit and once again roam the world.

Further, unlike our calendar which measures a day as being from midnight to midnight, the ancient Celts measured a day as running from sunset to sunset. The Samhain holiday thus began with sunset which meant that the spirits of the dead would be moving back into the world as darkness set in and the day's festivities started.

Stingy Jack

Irish folktales contain a number of stories about a lazy fellow named Stingy Jack. As his name implies, Stingy Jack, was not a likable fellow.

Worse, while he wasn't one to share with others, he had no qualms about taking what he wanted from them through trickery and deceit. Jack was basically a petty thief who lived by stealing.

While disliked by all, Jack led the type of life that attracted the Devil who is always on the lookout for new souls to lead into Hell. However, despite his faults, Jack was not anxious to pay for his sins by spending eternity in Hell.

Being conceited as well as clever, Jack was not afraid to trick the Devil as well, which he did regularly.

Jack O Lantern glowing in the dark
Jack O Lantern glowing in the dark | Source

Tales of Jack's Dealings with the Devil

Stories of Jack and the Devil abound and these always involve the Devil being the loser as Jack was a master of trickery.

Folktales are part of an oral tradition in which the same stories are told and retold which eventually results in a number of different versions. One set of stories concerns tricking the Devil into changing himself into a silver coin, an easy trick for the Devil who can easily change into any form he wants.

Jack-O-Lantern | Source
Skeleton rising from its grave on Halloween
Skeleton rising from its grave on Halloween | Source
Scary Halloween Jack O' Lantern glowing in the dark
Scary Halloween Jack O' Lantern glowing in the dark | Source
Autumn Twilight in a corn field
Autumn Twilight in a corn field | Source

Jack Tricks the Devil Into Turning Himself into a Sliver Coin

One version of this tale has Jack being caught by villagers while stealing some bacon from their village.

Jack runs as the villagers come after him armed with shovels and rakes.

Being more nimble, Jack outruns the villagers and is well on his way to safety when he suddenly finds his path blocked by Satan who informs Jack that his time is up and he, the Devil himself, is here to escort Jack to Hell.

Thinking quick, Jack suggests that, before departing, he and Satan can first have some fun with the villagers who are still after him. J

ack proposes that the Devil change himself into a silver coin which Jack will then give to the villagers as payment for the bacon he stole. Once back at the village the Devil will disappear and return to Jack leaving the villagers to fight over which of them stole the coin.

The Devil agreed and turned himself into a silver coin which Jack immediately put into his pocket, right next to a crucifix he carried.

Trapped by the crucifix, Satan was now forced to bargain with Jack for his freedom, and Jack's terms were that he be given an additional ten years on earth before dying and going to Hell.

A variation of this tale of the silver coin, which is sometimes connected with Jack's stealing of bacon and other times a totally separate tale, has Jack and the Devil meeting and the Devil informing Jack that his time on earth is up. In this version,

Jack agrees to leave this life and accompany Satan to Hell but first suggests that he an Satan enjoy a drink at a nearby tavern.

The Devil agrees and Jack and the Devil have a leisurely drink. When it is time to leave, Jack suggests that the Devil turn himself into a silver coin so that he, Jack, can pay and then Satan can enjoy the tavern keeper's anger when he discovers the coin missing after the Devil resumes his normal shape and disappears.

Satan agrees and Jack again tricks him by putting the coin into his pocket next to a crucifix.

Jack Forces the Devil to Make a Promise

Then there is the story of Jack and the Devil meeting and Jack tricking the Devil into climbing an apple tree.  

Once the Devil was up in the tree, Jack quickly encircled the tree with crosses thereby trapping Satan in the tree (why the Devil had to escape by climbing down and having to face the crosses rather than simply flying over the crosses and away is never explained).

In this story as in some versions of the other two, instead of asking for more time on earth, Jack demands that, in exchange for his freedom, Satan had to promise Jack that he would never take Jack to Hell.  The Devil promised and Jack figured he was safe for eternity.

A zombie laying in its casket on Halloween
A zombie laying in its casket on Halloween | Source
A scary Halloween witch
A scary Halloween witch | Source

Jack Proves Himself to be Too Clever by a Half

However, as they say in Ireland, Jack was too clever by a half in that, while he was successful in bargaining with the Devil, he wrongly assumed that if Hell was closed to him he had to go to Heaven. However, when Jack died and his spirit approached the Pearly Gates leading into Heaven he was stopped by St. Peter and informed that those who had led a life of sin, as Jack certainly had, were not allowed entry to Heaven.

With Heaven closed to him, Jack felt his only alternative was Hell. However, when Jack knocked on the Gates of Hell the Devil greeted him and reminded Jack of the promise Jack had extracted from him to never take Jack into Hell.

Being denied entry into both Heaven and Hell, Jack was faced with the prospect of having to wander in the darkness for eternity. However, the Devil took pity on Jack and tossed him a burning coal from the fires of Hell for Jack to use to find his way in the dark. Placing the burning coal in a hollowed out turnip, Jack began his wandering using the glow of his turnip lantern to guide his way.

Two scary Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns glowing in the dark
Two scary Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns glowing in the dark | Source

Down through the centuries, fearing that Jack's wandering spirit might return on Halloween and steal from them, Irish peasants began hollowing out and carving faces in turnips into which they placed a candle or other light to scare away Jack of the Lantern or Jack O' Lantern.

When waves of Irish began coming to America in the nineteenth century, they brought with them the custom of carving faces in hollowed out turnips for Halloween. However, in America they discovered pumpkins and decided that these were bigger and much better for making their Jack-O'-Lanterns for Halloween and this is how carved pumpkins with a candle inside became known as Jack-O'-Lanterns.

© 2009 Chuck Nugent


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    • JanieWrites profile image


      10 years ago from Arizona

      Very well done Hub - and a nice lesson on Stingy Jack and his lantern. Thanks!

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Great Write and I learned something today. cool. thanks. kimberly

    • ocbill profile image


      10 years ago from hopefully somewhere peaceful and nice

      Yes, this was very good reading. Ol' Jack you got to hand it to him. he's a card.

    • Lisa HW profile image

      Lisa HW 

      10 years ago from Massachusetts

      I loved this Hub. Like Carmen, I've never heard of Stingy Jack either.

    • Carmen Borthwick profile image

      Carmen Borthwick 

      10 years ago from Maple Ridge, B.C.

      Good hub, Chuck. Never heard of Stingy Jack, thanks.

    • Itswritten profile image


      10 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Great Hub

    • Legacy Wellness profile image

      Legacy Wellness 

      10 years ago from Katy, Texas

      Thanks for the very interesting and informative hub!

    • Isabellas profile image


      10 years ago from Ohio

      Very good hub. I always wondered about this when my kids ask me why, but never had a good answer! Thanks for the information!

    • johnwindbell profile image


      10 years ago from - the land of beards and buggies

      Thank you again Chuck, a very nice read.

      I love folk and fairy tales. There was a lecture

      at F+M last night you would have enjoyed.


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