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The History of the Jack-O-Lantern

jack-o-lanternThere are many families who celebrate Halloween with a tradition that has been going on for a long time. They carve pumpkins to use as decoration. When you stop to think about it, it may seem strange to carve up food and put a candle inside it. Have you ever wondered how the tradition of carving pumpkins for Halloween got started?

Every year, during the month of October, you will see plenty of carved pumpkins around. It is a popular practice in the United States. However, to get into the history of the carved pumpkin, or jack-o-lantern, you have to go back hundreds of years to Ireland. Those of you who have Irish heritage may not have been aware that your Irish ancestors may have carved into vegetables around Halloween. People who immigrated from Ireland to the United States brought this tradition with them.

There is an old legend called “Stingy Jack”. As you can tell from the title, the story is about a man name Jack who was known for being a very stingy person. There are slight variations of the story, depending on the talent of the person telling the tale. Key points remain the same, though.

The story starts with Stingy Jack inviting the Devil to have a drink with him. Naturally, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink. So, he convinced the Devil to turn into a gold coin. The plan was that Stingy Jack would use the coin to pay for the drink. Instead, Stingy Jack put the coin into his pocket next to a silver cross. The story says that this prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.

Stingy Jack did, eventually, free the Devil. But, only after he made the Devil promise not to bother him for one year. In addition, if Stingy Jack died that year, the Devil had to promise not to claim his soul. One year passed by. The next year, Stingy Jack tricked the Devil to climb a tree. Once he did, Stingy Jack carved a cross into the tree trunk. This prevented the Devil from climbing down. This time, Stingy Jack would not free the Devil unless he made the same promise as before, but this time for ten years instead of one.

The legend continues that when Stingy Jack died, he wasn’t allowed into Heaven. It is said that God could not allow an “unsavory” figure into Heaven. The Devil had to keep his promise not to claim Stingy Jack’s soul. This posed a problem. Where could Stingy Jack’s soul go?

The Devil ended up sending Stingy Jack out into the night with only a burning coal to light his way. He was going to have to wander the world. Stingy Jack put the burning coal into a carved out turnip. This ghostly figure was referred to by Irish people as “Jack of the Lantern”. It was later shortened into “Jack O’Lantern”.

The original jack-o-lanterns were made out of turnips, large potatoes, or beets. The purpose was to use them to scare away wandering spirits on Halloween. When Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, they started using pumpkins instead. The pumpkin was native to the United States. One can assume that the pumpkin would be easier to carve than a turnip, too.

Image by leasqueaky on Flickr.

Related Articles:

* Celtic Genealogy

* Irish Genealogy

* Scottish Genealogy

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