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The History of The Jack O'Lantern

Updated on October 26, 2015
The Jack O'Lantern is steeped in history. Learn more about what you're doing when you carve a pumpkin and set it out on Halloween Night!
The Jack O'Lantern is steeped in history. Learn more about what you're doing when you carve a pumpkin and set it out on Halloween Night! | Source

Every year, American families purchase pumpkins and carve them into faces or other, less traditional designs, so that they can be placed out on the door step or porch as decorations on Halloween Night. It's a fun activity the entire family can participate in, and every Halloween you'll see pumpkins on porches all across America.

While some people know the tradition of the Jack O'Lantern, others are less well-informed. The purpose of this article is to explain what the Jack O'Lantern is and the way that it was brought into American culture to become such an Autumn mainstay.

Whether you carve pumpkins with your family every year or you refrain from doing so for religious reasons, this article should help to explain how this tradition made its way to the United States and the reasons that we continue to practice this fun activity every October.

The history of the Jack O'Lantern probably goes back to the Celts.
The history of the Jack O'Lantern probably goes back to the Celts. | Source

The Celtic Origins of Halloween Traditions

The origins of Halloween, as we practice it today, is largely attributed to the Celtic peoples of Ireland and Wales. Before Christianity reached that part of the world, the Celtic pagans celebrated Samhan (pronounced like sow-en) on November 1st. This is traditionally the Celtic Pagan New Year, and is considered the time when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. During this time of year, the pagans believe that the dead can cross over to the world of the living and visit with those they left behind.

Modern Halloween is a combination of Christian traditions and the pagan traditions. When Christianity began to make its way through Europe, the Christians of the time transitioned the pagans of the time by blending their traditions with new, Catholic practices built around the pagan histories. Halloween is also All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, and Samhain became All Saints Day.

The Jack O'Lantern is lit to ward off evil spirits who cross over the veil on Samhain.
The Jack O'Lantern is lit to ward off evil spirits who cross over the veil on Samhain. | Source

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Halloween is a Pagan Tradition

By now I'm sure that most people are aware that the origins of Halloween are deeply rooted in pagan traditions. The question is: Do you celebrate Halloween, if you're a Christian?

Over the past few years, I've noted that this is an incredibly complex question. Some Christians celebrate Halloween because they believe that its original meanings are no longer relevant to us in today's time. Others celebrate because they believe that there is only one God and that he is in control of everything, so why not? Still others believe that the celebration of a pagan holiday is a sin and therefore refrain from celebration and don't allow their children to participate in Halloween activities.

These days, if your child goes to school, he or she probably celebrates Halloween one way or another (particularly at public schools).

Many Christians choose to celebrate with an Autumn Festival, so that their children get the effect of Halloween without the Pagan connotations, but they don't understand that everything about Halloweed -- from dressing up to trick-or-treating -- is rooted in pagan traditions that have slipped from modern understanding.

If you're religious, know the traditions before you make your choice.

Jack O'Lanterns are still lit in modern America, in spite of, or because of, pagan traditions.
Jack O'Lanterns are still lit in modern America, in spite of, or because of, pagan traditions. | Source
The carved turnip was the precursor to the carved pumpkin that we know today.
The carved turnip was the precursor to the carved pumpkin that we know today. | Source

A Carved... Turnip?

The earliest Jack O'Lanterns, coming from the Celtic countries, were probably indeed not carved pumpkins, but carved turnips. Pumpkins weren't available to the people with whom the tradition originated, and so they carved turnips or rutabaga into faces and lit them outside their houses to ward off evil spirits.

Turnips can obviously still be carved today, as the photograph to the right indicates. They are beautiful when lit and, in essence, are a small-scale Jack O'Lantern. You can get the same effect by carving smaller, baking pumpkins as well, if you please.

Carved pumpkins can have a ton of personality, if you carve them well!
Carved pumpkins can have a ton of personality, if you carve them well! | Source
The Jack O'Lantern comes from a traditional story about a man named Stingy Jack.
The Jack O'Lantern comes from a traditional story about a man named Stingy Jack. | Source

The term Jack O'Lantern comes from "Jack of the Lantern." This is a traditional story that led to the modern Jack O'Lantern that is still lit at Halloween today.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

The practice of keeping Jack O'Lanterns may have originated from an Irish Myth about a man named Stingy Jack (the "Jack" in "Jack O'Lantern).

As the story goes, Jack was a drunk, a trickster and a manipulator. He was known throughout town for being a bad guy. Disliked by virtually everybody in town, he had a bad reputation for doing whatever he could to take money from other people and to get them to pay for his drinks.

One night, he met the devil at the pub. Being the cunning monster that he was, Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him. Unwilling to pay for the drink himself, of course, Jack convinced the devil to transform himself into a coin in order to pay for the drinks, promising that the devil could change back once the drinks had been paid for and consumed. Instead, he slid the coin into his pocket beside a cross that he carried, preventing the devil from changing back to himself.

Eventually, of course, Jack released the devil from his pocket, but only on the condition that the devil couldn't return to claim his soul for another ten years.

Ten years later, Jack happened upon the devil while walking down a country road. The devil was ready to collect what he was due, and so he went to take Jack back to Hell. Jack, being the cunning man that he was, asked the devil if he could have just one more apple before he went with him to the underworld. Having nothing to lose, the devil climbed into the apple tree to collect an apple for Jack, but Jack carved a cross into the trunk of the tree, preventing the devil from coming down from the tree again.

This time, in exchange for the devil's freedom, Jack made the devil promise that when he died, the devil could not take his soul. With no way around his predicament, the devil agreed.

Many years later, Jack finally died. Unwilling to take such a man into Heaven, God cast Jack down into Hell. Unable to take him into Hell, the devil also cast him out. When Jack asked the devil where he would go, the devil told him to go back where he'd come from. Jack begged the devil to at least give him a light to light his way, and the devil gave Jack a coal to guide him.

Jack carved a turnip and put the coal inside, using the turnip as a lantern.

Traditionally, people carve turnips, potatoes, beets, and pumpkins to put them in the window to ward off evil spirits such as Jack. He became known Jack of the Lantern, or simply Jack O'Lantern.

Carving Your Jack O'Lantern

Pumpkins come in all shapes and sizes, and there are many different ways to make your best carved pumpkins for Halloween. Traditionally, a Jack O'Lantern has a face carved into it, to represent the face of Jack of the Lantern. You can experiment with different faces for best results, or make an entire family of pumpkins!

They don't have to be scary. Come up with your own designs. Make happy pumpkins, or sad pumpkins, or scary pumpkins. Set them out this Halloween whether you believe that they ward off evil spirits or just to get into the autumn spirit. One way or another, have fun with your pumpkins!

© 2014 Becki Rizzuti

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    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 2 years ago from Taos, NM

      Oh, for heaven's sake. Everyone knows the Catholic Church took the pagan holidays of the people they were converting and wove them into the Catholic religion. Halloween, Christmas, New Year's, Easter all had their beginnings in pagan holidays. The Catholic religion took the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and made it Christ's birthday. That is why we celebrate Christ's birthday on Dec. 25. That way the converts would still be having a celebration at winter solstice time but with a Christian twist to it. We get the custom of wreaths and putting out evergreens from the pagan celebrations. We get the Yule Log from pagan celebrations.

      Very interesting and informative article and thank you for writing this.

    • David Ortega profile image

      David Ortega 2 years ago from Altoona, Iowa

      As with any research, there is evidence that suggests that the origins did NOT originate with Catholics. "Like other claims that Catholicism adopted pagan practices and beliefs, this myth is also based on bad research and propaganda that developed after the Protestant Reformation."

      http://www.catholic.com/blog/jon-sorensen/hallowee...