What’s more evocative of Halloween than a jack o’lantern glowing in the night? Who came up with the idea of carving faces into pumpkins and putting candles inside?
The tradition of the Jack O’Lantern started in Ireland, only it wasn’t carved pumpkins, it was carved turnips. Why would people carve turnips? It all began with a legend.
Many, many years ago there was a horrible, rotten man who lived in Ireland. Some say his name was Jack, but the term “jack” refers to a man, so that may not have been his true name. For the ease of storytelling, I’ll call him Jack. Jack was a miserable excuse for a human being. He was drunk most of the time, uncaring, and mean. He never did a good think in his life. One night Jack had a run in with the devil himself. There are a few versions of this fiendish encounter.
According to one version of the story Jack was running away from some villagers when the devil stopped him and tried to take his soul. Jack attempted to bargain with the devil, telling him that he could have the good townsfolk chasing him instead of just his soul. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a coin which Jack would give to the townsfolk to pay for the things he stole. The devil, as the coin, would then disappear and the people would fight over who stole the missing coin. The devil agreed to the plan and turned himself into a coin. However, Jack put a cross along with the coin in his wallet, thus stripping the devil of his powers. Jack made the devil agree never to take his soul, and then released him.
In another story, Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit. Once the devil was in the tree Jack carved a cross into the bark of the tree, thereby trapping the devil. Again Jack made the devil promise not to take his soul.
However the devil was tricked, he agreed not to take Jack’s soul. But Jack was still mortal and eventually died. He tried to get into Heaven, but was stopped at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter turned him away; no sinner such as Jack could get into Heaven. So Jack went down to Hell. The devil was still a bit peeved at being tricked so he refused to let Jack into Hell. Jack had nowhere to go and asked the devil to at least give him some light so that he could see. The devil tossed him a glowing ember from the flames of hell. Jack happened to have a turnip (his favorite food) with him, so he placed the ember in the turnip and cut holes to make it into a lantern. And so it was that Jack roamed the earth with his jack o’lantern.
In Ireland people eventually began carving scary faces into turnips and potatoes. They placed them in windows and near doors to scare away Jack and other evil spirits.
When Irish immigrants came to the United States turnips weren’t as easily found, but pumpkins were quite abundant. From that time on pumpkins were the vegetable of choice when it came to making Jack O’Lanterns.
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