History of the Halloween Jack O'Lantern

CliffsNotes October 19, 2015

Pumpkin Image

Now that it’s October, there’s only one thing on your mind. It haunts you when you’re awake. It follows you into your dreams. It crowds your Instagram timeline. It could only be one thing… pumpkin. Whether you’re taking a selfie with your pumpkin spice latte (#PSL) or fighting with your cousins about who makes the best pumpkin pie, October is the month of this fruit (yes, FRUIT - in fact, it's a berry... and strawberries aren't actually berries...this world is complex).

Not only is pumpkin delicious, but it’s versatile too! It even becomes one of the most recognizable decorations on Halloween. Jack-o’-lanterns have been around for centuries, but how did putting a candle inside a toothy carved-out food become a tradition? Does the light of the candle that shines through the dark of the night symbolize the evils that lurk in the darkness? Are we sounding too much like Ray Bradbury in “The October Country”?

Stingy Jack

As most great stories go, the history of the jack-o’-lantern derives from an old folktale. This Irish story describes a man named Stingy Jack who invites the Devil for drinks. Why someone would want to have a cocktail with the Devil is beyond us… but we digress. Sticking true to his name, Stingy Jack doesn’t want to pay for said cocktails, so he convinces the Devil to turn into a coin in order to pay for the drinks. Of course, Jack steals the coin and sticks it in his pocket next to a crucifix so that the Devil can’t return to his true form. Bold move, Jack.

Jack only frees the Devil after making him promise that he won’t bother Jack for a year, and he won’t claim Jack’s soul when Jack dies. So a year passes, and the Devil and Jack are back to being pals hanging out by a fruit tree. Naturally the Devil, being the accommodating Hell-dwelling soul that he is, climbs the tree to get some fruit for Jack. Jack tricks the Devil yet again and traps him in the tree by carving a cross in the trunk. He doesn’t let the Devil down until he promises not to bother Jack again for another 10 years. Sadly, this isn’t the unhealthiest relationship we’ve ever encountered…

Of course, Jack dies shortly thereafter. When he gets rejected at the pearly gates of Heaven because he’s basically a horrible person, Jack comes running back to the Devil in Hell. The Devil finally stands his ground and doesn’t let Jack into Hell, but we’re guessing he has a hard time saying no because he gives Jack a burning coal to help him light his way through purgatory. Jack puts this coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since.


The people of the Celtic region took this story to heart and carved horrifying faces into potatoes, turnips, and beets and put candles inside them. They believed that putting these lanterns – hence the name “jack-o’-lantern” – in their windows would ward off Stingy Jack and other evil spirits during their annual Samhain festival (which, it’s believed, is where the whole Halloween thing started). Once the Celts immigrated to North America, pumpkins were all over the place, so they became the new jack-o’-lantern vessel. Now, we’re never “stingy” with our pumpkin use in October.

Curious about other deals made with the Devil and getting stuck in purgatory? Check out Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s long name as well as his poem Faust. You might also like its spin-off in the form of a play called Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.There’s also Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy: Inferno, George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, and Jon Milton’s Paradise Lost. Happy Devil reading!

Stay tuned for more Halloween articles coming this month!

Source: http://www.history.com/topics/halloween/jack-olantern-history

Back to Top