Like most traditions, the history of the jack-o’-lantern varies based on who you ask. One prominent explanation, and by far the most interesting, is that the Halloween tradition comes from an Irish folktale of a guy who tricked the Devil twice. He is the Jack in jack-o’-lanterns.

The Irish tale follows a man named Jack, more often known as Stingy Jack, a man who loved to drink as much as he hated to spend money. There are slightly different versions of the Stingy Jack story, but the general tale is that he was out drinking with the Devil.

Apparently, the lord of darkness has to pay his bar tab like the rest of us, but Stingy Jack, naturally, wanted to be a cheapskate. He proposed that the Devil transform into a coin to pay for their drinks. However, the tricky human had other plans. Stingy Jack pocketed the Devil coin, placing it next to a silver cross that kept the Devil stuck in coin form. In exchange for letting the Devil go, the Devil had to agree to leave Jack alone for a year and not claim his soul after he died. Because the Devil is easy to trick and kind of wimpy, he agreed. 

The two would then encounter each other the next year, and of course, the drunken Jack tricked the powerful evil entity once again. He tricked the Devil into climbing up a tree, which Jack then carved a cross into. This left the Devil stuck like a neighborhood cat. Once again, the two reached a deal in which the Devil agreed to leave Jack alone, this time for 10 years. 

Stingy Jack eventually died, and he was not allowed into heaven, probably due to, y’know, the fact that he and the Devil seemed to hang out semi-frequently. However, he was not sent to hell either, as the Devil had agreed not to claim his soul. This left poor Jack to wander as a spirit for all eternity. To give Stingy Jack light for his travels, the Devil gave him a piece of coal, which Jack put in a turnip that had been carved as a lantern.

Rannpháirtí anaithnid/Wiki Commons

You'd make that face, too, if tasting turnip was your entire existence.

This carved turnip with the coal in it is the inspiration for carving faces in pumpkins today. Stingy Jack became “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack-o’-lantern,” and the tradition has grown ever since. Pumpkins, which are now synonymous with the Halloween tradition, were not used in original Irish jack-o’-lanterns, as the gourd isn’t native to Ireland. Instead, they carved turnips, beets, potatoes, and other root vegetables. 

It is worth noting that the tradition of carving faces in turnips existed long before the Stingy Jack story. It began as an ancient Celtic tradition for the celebration of Samhain. This pagan festival, which seems to have inspired much of our modern Halloween, involves a tradition in which spirits roam the earth for a limited time. To scare them away, faces were carved into root vegetables. 

Regardless, the tradition of carving vegetables into lanterns was brought to America by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. Pumpkins became the crop of choice for jack-o’-lanterns, as their hollow shape was a natural fit for carving. Plus, turnip jack-o’-lanterns are downright terrifying.

And so, the next time you celebrate the spookiest day of the year through an artistically sliced gourd, remember to thank Stingy Jack for his questionable life choices and for easily fooling the Devil twice.

Top Image: Peter Kratochvil/Wiki Commons

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