Join us as we explore Halloween, the Legend of Stingy Jack, and the History of the Jack-o-Lantern.
Every October, carved pumpkins stand guard on porches and doorsteps in the United States and other parts of the world. These gourd-like orange fruits inscribed with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles are a sure sign that the Halloween season is here. Have you ever wondered how did this tradition started? The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.”
THE LEGEND OF STINGY JACK
According to Irish folklore, a man called Jack O’Lantern was sentenced to roam the earth for eternity. A ghostly figure of the night, O’Lantern walked with a burning coal inside of a carved-out turnip to light his way. As the tale goes, this man called Stingy Jack invited the devil for a drink and convinced him to shape-shift into a coin to pay with. When the devil obliged, Jack decided he wanted the coin for other purposes and kept it in his pocket beside a small, silver cross to prevent the coin from turning back into his original form.
Jack eventually freed the devil under the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for one year, and wouldn’t claim Jack’s soul once he died. The next year, Jack tricked the devil once more by convincing him to climb up a tree to fetch a piece of fruit. When he was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so the devil couldn’t come down until he swore he wouldn’t bother Stingy Jack for another ten years.
Soon after, Jack died. God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He was instead sent into the eternal night, with a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. He’s been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to this spooky figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” which then became “Jack O’Lantern.”
This legend is why people in Ireland and Scotland began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving grotesque faces into turnips, mangelwurzels, potatoes, and beets, placing them in the windows or near doors of their homes to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits and travelers.
When the Irish and Scots immigrated to America, bringing the tradition with them, they found that pumpkins, native to America, made perfect fruits for carving. Pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns have become an integral part of Halloween festivities ever since. Some believe that the Jack-o-Lanterns originated with All Saints’ Day, and represent Christian souls in purgatory. Roaming Stingy Jack is in, after all, what would be considered purgatory.
Once this became a Halloween tradition, Jack-o-Lanterns were used as guides for people dressed in costume on Samhain (Oct 31 – Nov 1), a traditional Gaelic version of Halloween, seen as a night when the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead is especially thin. The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year. During some Celtic celebrations of Samhain, villagers disguised themselves in costumes made of animal skins to drive away phantom visitors; banquet tables were prepared and edible offerings were left out to placate unwelcome spirits. In later centuries, people began dressing as ghosts, demons, and other malevolent creatures, performing antics in exchange for food and drink. This custom, known as mumming, dates back to the Middle Ages and is thought to be an antecedent of trick-or-treating.
Also, by the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands, where it gradually blended with and supplanted older pagan rites. In 1000 A.D. the church designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day, a time for honoring the dead. Celebrations in England resembled Celtic commemorations of Samhain, complete with bonfires and masquerades. Poor people would visit the houses of wealthier families and receive pastries called soul cakes in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the homeowners’ dead relatives. Known as souling, the practice was later taken up by children, who would go from door to door asking for gifts such as food, money, and ale.
In Scotland and Ireland, young people took part in a tradition called guising, dressing up in costume and accepting offerings from various households. Rather than pledging to pray for the dead, they would sing a song, recite a poem, tell a joke or perform another sort of “trick” before collecting their treat, which typically consisted of fruit, nuts or coins.
Still another potential trick-or-treating predecessor is the British custom for children to wear masks and carry effigies while begging for pennies on Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night), which commemorates the foiling of the so-called Gunpowder Plot in 1605. On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed for his role in the Catholic-led conspiracy to blow up England’s parliament building and remove King James I, a Protestant, from power. On the original Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated immediately after the famous plotter’s execution, communal bonfires, or “bone fires,” were lit to burn effigies and the symbolic “bones” of the Catholic pope. By the early 19th century, children bearing effigies of Fawkes were roaming the streets on the evening of November 5, asking for “a penny for the Guy.”
Trick-or-treating as we know it today—going from house to house in search of candy and other goodies—has been a popular Halloween tradition in the United States and other countries for an estimated 100 years. Yet the origins of this community-based ritual, which costumed children typically savor while their cavity-conscious parents grudgingly tag along, still remains a bit hazy. Today, Americans spend billions annually on Halloween. It is the nation’s second-largest commercial holiday.
Be sure to read How to Choose the Best Pumpkin to make sure you have the most spectacular Jack-o-Lanterns and Pumpkin Pies!