The traditional carving of the Jack-o-lantern has its roots in a very dark tale from Irish lore about a man named Stingy Jack, who dared to drink with the devil and gambled his soul on the sharpness of his wits. Originally Turnips were hollowed out and used as talismans against the dark forces of evil. Immigrants from Ireland brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, makes perfect jack o’lanterns. Here is the story. I enjoy reading it each year and reliving what it must have been like to be so wrought with fear and superstition. Its pretty long so settle in for a great tale.
Jack’s story begins on a dark and cold evening in rural Ireland when the moon was high and yellow. Stingy Jack, as he was called, was a horrid man; a drunkard, a liar, and a miser who took especial delight in separating the dull witted from their belongings. Travelers who had crossed paths with Jack recalled their encounters and it was not long before word of Jack’s ill-repute spread far and wide, falling upon the ears of the Devil himself. The Devil listened with keen interest to the stories about Jack, the man reputed to have a silver tongue to rival the Devil himself. It is not a wise thing to deal with the Devil, and in the Devil’s infinite conceit he was certain he had no rival; not on Earth or in Heaven. It was in this fashion that the Devil resolved to seek out Jack, and lay to rest the tales.
One cold evening, with the crisp chill of autumn in the air, Stingy Jack went wandering through the night and on his usual path, he stumbled across a most unusual character. Standing bent and crooked in the road, he saw the devil wearing a mocking grin across his face. Jack called out to the figure and was answered by silence and the glint of the Devil’s gnarled smirk. To Jack it was no surprise to see the Devil, as he knew it was just a mere matter of time before he came to claim Jack’s soul and drag him into hell. Therefore, Jack, believing his final hours were upon him, set his mind to thinking. “Devil,” Stingy Jack called out, “the sight of you surely marks my last night. I’d hoped I might have one last drink… won’t you share a drink with me before we get on our way?” The Devil scratched his chin. He could find no reason to deny Stingy Jack his request so the Devil accepted Jack’s invitation, delighted at the opportunity to see Jack in action. So the two drank that night until both could scarcely hold themselves upright, and just before the sun rose Stingy Jack decided the evening of revelry had come to an end as he unsteadily rose to his feet and turned for home. The Devil stopped Jack before he took a single step. The matter of the evening’s tab was yet unresolved. Jack pleaded poverty with the Devil, insisting that he could not pay the bar keep because he hadn’t a single silver coin to his name. The Devil was unmoved by Jack’s plight and he refused to pay the barkeep since it was indeed Jack who had invited him to drink. Jack eyed the Devil and in conspiratorial tones laid out his suggestion for a happy compromise. The Devil, Jack said, could turn himself into a silver coin and Jack would use that coin to pay the bar keep. Once the barkeep had drifted off to sleep the Devil, could then change back into his true form and leave the slumbering bar tender none the wiser. As Jack explained his plan, the Devil laughed, and happily agreed to Jack’s proposal, transforming himself into a solid silver coin. True to his name and still fearing the Devil had come to take him to Hell, Jack enacted the second segment of his plan. With a smile and a chuckle, he plunged the silver coin into his pocket beside an ornate crucifix. Enraged that Jack had tricked him the Devil attempted to change his form, but found that he could not so long as Jack kept him bound with the crucifix.
As Jack merrily skipped for home, he sang a song of how he had tricked the Devil and escaped the clutches of damnation. Some time passed before Jack opted to strike another deal with the Devil in his pocket. Jack promised to free the Devil only, if the Devil promised not to trouble him for a year and swear that should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The Devil agreed and Jack tossed the coin high into the air where it vanished into nothingness. That year was Stingy Jack’s best, for he knew that he could not suffer in Hell for any of his deeds. In fact, he had such a wonderful time that Jack scarcely noticed the passing of an entire year. One night he went off wondering down his usual path, and again he came across the unusual figure standing in the very spot were he stood the night of their first meeting.
The sight of the Devil struck terror in Jack. The year had been spent in a drunken daze and he had not been aware that his contract was about to expire. Jack thought quickly. “I know why you’re here,” Jack called out, “I’d be happy to oblige you if you would only grant a dying man one last request.” The Devil spoke not a word; he simply stood in the moon light and smiled. “Would you climb up that tree and fetch me one of those juicy fruit from the top branches. I would, but I’m just an old man.” For a moment the two stood frozen in the middle of the winding dirt road. Jack did not dare to move until the Devil flashed his grin and nodded to Jack. Happily, the Devil scuttled up the tree trunk and slithered through the branches to the top, where the most tantalizing fruit dangled. With ease, he plucked the ripest, most delicious fruit from the highest limb. His eyes scanned the road and he saw that Jack was nowhere to be seen. Quickly he moved to slip through the branches and down the trunk but the Devil foudn that he could not pass. Upon seeing the Devil’s predicament Jack leapt from the bushes exclaiming that he had carved a cross on the base of the tree! Stingy Jack erupted in wild laughter at the foolishness of the Devil for having been tricked in such a manner yet again. The Devil merely smiled, his eyes leering at Jack from the shadows. “Say Devil, I will release you, but you must promise to trouble me no more for a time of 10 years,” Jack was laughing so hard he could scarcely form the words. “And you must agree that upon my death you will not claim my soul!” The Devil, with his ferocious smile, agreed to Jack’s terms with a bemused chuckle. He would trouble Jack no more, for the time of 10 years, and when Jack died, the Devil would not take his soul to Hell.
In life, Jack did not see the Devil again, for he passed away no more then 7 years after he had trapped the Devil in the tree. Drunkenness had lured Jack to an early grave, but when he passed, it is said he died with a small smile at the corners of his mouth. Jack died confident that his place in Heaven was assured, since the Devil had sworn he would not claim him.
Heaven, however, would never admit such an unsavory character. Jack’s wicked soul was cast down to Earth, destined never to look upon Heaven again. Bewildered, Jack looked around, and on his usual path he saw a figure proudly displaying his familiar smile. Jack had beaten the Devil, and yet there he was in the middle of the road. The Devil raised his hand forbidding Jack to speak. The Devil’s head drooped with shame, as he confessed that Jack had tricked him and he indeed would not claim his soul, but…not even the Devil himself could match Stingy Jack’s miserly ways and so the Devil offered Jack a gift; a single ember, said to be a spark of Hell’s flames, to light his way through the frigid eternal darkness. With that, the Devil disappeared, and troubled Jack no more. Stingy Jack clutched at the ember burning hot in his spectral palm. The winds blew strong and the ghost flame began to fade. If the spark were to fade, then there would be no light to illuminate the dark and haunted path. Defeated, Stingy Jack hollowed out a turnip and nestled his spark of hellfire safely inside to form a crude lantern.
Some time after his death, farmers and peasants claimed to see the ghostly glow of an unnatural flame traveling aimlessly down the paths and roads of backwoods. Travelers on the road who were unfortunate enough to meet with Jack of the Lantern, as he had come to be called, often found themselves tricked out of their lives and occasionally their souls by the devious, vengeful specter. As generations passed, people came to avoid Jack’s haunts, and his tale passed into legend. Jack of the Lantern became Jack O’Lantern, a slightly mocking sobriquet meant to reflect familial allegiance (O’Leary, O’Keefe, and ECT). In rural Ireland people still believe that on a clear night one can still see the eerie incandescence of Jack’s lantern glowing in the blackness. Travelers are warned that should they see a strange light appear on a narrow back road they should turn the other way for no one wants to meet with Jack. Infamous as the man scorned by the Devil, the Irish feared him, and never more then on Halloween, when the fog that separated the dead from the living thinned and Jack could wander free from his usual path right up to the doorsteps of innocent families. He would appear in the guise of an old man, or perhaps a scrappy looking animal, and more than twice as a shiny silver coin on the stoop. For protection, villagers began to carve turnips and place inside a candle, to be set outside their doors on Halloween night.
The horrific visage carved upon these crude Jack-o-lanterns is intended to remind Jack of his penance, and thus deter him from continuing his mischief. Others say that the glinting glowing smile reminds Jack of the Devil’s unwholesome grimace and forces him to flee. Regardless, each Halloween the Jack-o-lantern is carved and placed in the window or on the porch, and Stingy Jack remains cursed to wander the Earth unwelcome in Heaven and unable to enter Hell, never to meet his final rest.