Saturday, October 18, 2014

How the Jack-O-Lantern Came To Be by Sarah McNeal

The Legend Behind the Jack-O-Lantern

Okay, I get the history of Halloween, but what about that Jack-O-Lantern? Where the heck did a pumpkin with a scary face and a candle inside come from? Well, this author went on an investigation and got to the bottom of the origins of this iconic symbol of Halloween.

It all started back in Ireland with a man called “Stingy Jack”. According to the story, Stingy Jack was having a drink with the Devil, and true to his character, didn’t want to pay for it. Well, doesn’t that just spell trouble right there? It gets worse. Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin and used it to pay for their drinks. Wanting to keep the money for himself, Stingy Jack pocketed the coin with a silver cross so the old Devil couldn’t turn back into his rightful form. After some time, Jack freed the Devil, but with conditions. The Devil couldn’t bother Jack for a year, and should Jack die, the Devil could not claim his soul. A year later, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit. (Is the Devil this stupid?) Anyhow, while the Devil was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark of the tree to prevent the Devil from coming back down the tree. Once again, Jack extracts a promise from the Devil not to bother him for ten years.

Not long afterward, Jack died. Well, don’t you know, God wasn’t going to allow such a conniving character into Heaven. After the trickery Jack had heaped on the Devil, the Devil certainly wasn’t going to let Jack spend eternity in Hell. And just for a little pay-back, the Devil sent off Jack with a coal ember to light his way into the dark night. Old Stingy Jack put the coal ember into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish came to call Jack’s apparition, “Jack of the Lantern”, and later, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
The Celts of Ireland and Scotland began making their own versions of Jack’s lantern out of turnips and beets. 

When they came to America, they brought the legend of Jack O’Lantern with them and continued the tradition of making lanterns out of vegetables. Eventually, they discovered pumpkins, a fruit native to America, made the best possible lanterns. 

In the 1820 story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, the headless horseman uses a lighted pumpkin hung from his saddle and chases Ichabod Crane. All that remained after the incident was the horse, a hat, and a smashed pumpkin beside the road.
Of course, lanterns carved from turnips and gourds, domesticated way back 10, 000 years ago, have been used by mankind in many parts of the world. Gourds were used as lanterns in caves by the Maori 700 years ago. I can see how humans would want a portable way to carry light way back in the day. It was a dark and scary place at night. Heck, we still use flashlights and cell phone lights to keep away the dark. In Ireland and Scotland, they often carved grotesque faces to frighten the fairies and spirits away, especially during Samhain, October 31-November 1 when spirits and fairies were particularly active.

The lanterns were used in Somerset on Hallowe’en (Punkie Night) during the 19th century. Some claim Jack-O-Lanterns started with All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2) to represent Christian souls in purgatory. Christopher Hill wrote that “jack-o’-lanterns were carved of turnips or squashes and were literally used as lanterns to guide guisers (not sure what “guisers” were) on All Hallows’ Eve. (Just a note: you may have noticed there are different was of writing Jack-O-Lantern.) Although is a commonly held belief that the Irish started the tradition of Jack-O-Lanterns, there is no scholar of Irish mythology and customs to support that assumption. However, the folklorist, Jabez Allies wrote, “In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a ‘Hoberdy's Lantern,’ by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style, and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travelers in the night.”

Well, I like the Jack-O-Lantern story making deals with the Devil, and I also enjoy the Americanized version of the pumpkin with a carved face and a candle lit within. As children, my sister and I set the house on fire using a paper mache’ Jack-O-Lantern when the candle that wasn’t supposed to be there burned down and started a fire. Halloween just wouldn’t be the same without that ghoulish grin carved in a pumpkin and an eerie light inside it.
Now for your viewing pleasure, here are some award winning Jack-O-Lanterns over the last few years.  

There were many more super-duper pumpkins that won prizes over the last ten years. Fascinating, aren't they? Mine were never this artistic, but they sure have been fun to make, just the same. I hope everyone has a wonderful Halloween with lots of fun and plenty of treats.

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. Her website:   


  1. Sarah, your blog about the Jack-O Lantern was fabulous. I enjoyed it so much I'm going to refer members of my writing chapter, LCRW, to visit this site and read it when I do a post on the 26th on the LCRW blog. I've been meaning to look up its history and hadn't got around to it--and bingo here it is at my doorstep. The pictures were an added bonus. Thanks you so so much for a very delightful and interesting read. I almost felt sorry for the stupid devil--almost. Happy Halloween.

  2. Sarah,

    Thanks for a cool post. Halloween history is a subject that definitely doesn't get it's due.

    And the pics of the Jack-O-Lanterns definitely put my attempts to shame.

    I'd love to win Vol. 1, as I haven't yet downloaded it.

  3. Alisa, thank you so much for commenting. I loved these pictures, too. I could never carve out anything as great as these people.
    I'll be drawing for the winner of the book later tomorrow. Good luck!

  4. Beverly, I posted a reply to your comment earlier and I must have done something goofy because it disappeared.
    I really appreciate your kind words. Where is the LCW chapter located?
    I'm glad I could be of some help to you about the history of the Jack-O-Lantern. Gish, I really love Halloween. It's just so much fun.
    Thabk you so much for commenting

  5. Wow!!! I never knew. Remember, I am not a fan of Halloween at all.
    None, zip, nada.
    But I do love Jack-o-Lanterns. For several years we've been fortunate enough to spend Halloween with our three grandsons in Ann Arbor, MI. Long way from Texas, but this was one of two special trips each year. They're older, now, and boy, are we, too. So we do not make this long harrowing three day road trip to Ann Arbor. We enjoyed it back then, and have great photos and wonderful memories.
    Each year when they were little, their parents took them to some pumpkin patch so each could choose a pumpkin. At home, we watched and helped these little guys wield a knife to make their jack-o-lantern. Oh, we had some very weird jack-o-lanterns. But each one would be on display in the yard--on top of a ladder, on top of a big rock, etc. so the trick-or-treaters could see them.
    That was fun.
    At Whole Foods, someone had carved a pumpkin that looked like an old world painting..hard to describe.
    Good post, Sarah, but then you always do such a nice job.

  6. Celia, that was so sweet of you and your husband to go all that way to spend Halloween with your grandsons--especially since you are not a fan of Halloween.
    It's wild and wonderful how artistic people have become carving pumpkins. It's really amazing.
    It's always lovely hear from you. I'm so glad you came.

  7. Another good article, Sarah. I've never had a pumpkin look like those examples though. That Indian head was amazing!

  8. I thought the Indian was an extraordinary work of art, too, Connie. Thank you for your compliment and for coming to comment, Connie. I really appreciate it.

  9. An interesting post with some information I had never bothered to uncover. God should have let Jack into heaven for being smart enough to keep the devil out of everyone's hair for a while.
    I used to carve elaborate jack-o'lanterns for my kids. Did a Frankenstein, a skull and a witch at various times. Glad my kids are old enough I don't have to do that sort of thing now. It was quite nerve-wracking to have to be that careful.

  10. Hi Sarah, sorry I'm late getting here. I spent the past two days at a convention, just got home a couple hours ago.

    I love your post! It's fun learning where traditions like the jack-o-lantern began. I'm partial to the tale of Stingy Jack tricking the devil. I also love the pics of carved pumpkins.

    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Sarah, what great pictures and history! I knew a little bit of this, but it's great to have you fill in the blanks. Thanks! Xo

  12. JD, that's wonderful that you cared about your kids enough to get all Michael Angelo with the pumpkin carving. I'm impressed. I like your take on the Jack-O-Lantern legend. Maybe God really should have allowed Stingy Jack into Heaven for being clever enough to keep the Devil at bay even for just a while.
    Thank you so much for your comment.

  13. Lyn, I hope you had fun at the convention. The last convention I went to was for ER nurses back in 2007. I had a few too many Grande Mariner (hope I spelled that right) and ended up with 2 other nurses on a stage singing.
    This was a fun blog to write. I'm so glad you liked it and I thank you so much for coming.

  14. Well Tanya, I'm glad I could fill in some blanks. The research was fun. There were so many pumpkin carving winners I didn't have room to post. I have never done anything that creative with a pumpkin. I've never seen any carved like that in my neighborhood, either.
    I'm so glad you came.

  15. Fascinating Sarah! Now they don't have jack o lanterns in France & when we were living there many years ago, my mother went to the local market & asked for a whole pumpkin. They tried to give her a slice but she insisted, & when they asked what she'd do with it, she told them she would hollow it out, make a face on it, and light a candle inside. Looks on their faces was priceless!

  16. Meredith, how wonderful to live in France. Wow. I would have liked seeing those expressions upon your mother's request for a pumpkin to carve, too. Imagine what the response was to her Jack-O-Lantern. Do they do any trick-or-treating in France, or have costume Halloween parties?
    Thank you so much for coming here and leaving a comment.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!