Jack Is Back

You’ve probably already heard the story of Jack and his lantern, but since Halloween is coming up, I might as well sum it up for you. Basically, an Irish blacksmith nicknamed “Stingy Jack” was a drunk and a swindler, constantly tricking his neighbors out of their money. The most famous tricks he played were on the Devil himself, first by placing Satan in the form of a coin against a crucifix, and later tricking the Prince of Darkness into a tree and surrounding it with crosses. Jack made the Devil promise he would never take his soul before letting him go. This worked out all right for him until he died, as people are wont to do. St. Peter wouldn’t let him into Heaven because of his sinful lifestyle, and Old Scratch wouldn’t accept him in Hell because of the agreement. Therefore, Jack was forced to wander the Earth as a ghost, with an ember from Hell inside a hollowed-out turnip to light the way.

Was this really the origin of carving lanterns from vegetables? Probably not. It’s more likely that the tale of Stingy Jack was created to explain an already existing tradition. When the lanterns came to be associated with Halloween isn’t entirely clear; this Wikipedia article initially says that they were Halloween decorations in Ireland, but then states that the association originated in North America in the nineteenth century. I’m inclined to believe the latter to be more accurate. The name “Jack O’ Lantern” for a carved vegetable, and hence presumably the story of Stingy Jack, was also a relatively recent development. Originally, it was another term for a will-o’-the-wisp, and could also refer to a night watchman. In North America, the pumpkin became the main source for Jack O’ Lanterns, and why not? They were bigger and easier to carve than turnips, and they were in season around Halloween. As with other holiday traditions, there’s an ancient background, but most of the details everyone today knows were only introduced within the last few centuries.

This entry was posted in Halloween, History, Holidays, Mythology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jack Is Back

  1. vilajunkie says:

    A similar legend is told about Will the Smith, the supposed source of the will-o’-the-wisp (the jack-o’-lantern’s original meaning).

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