Sep 09

The Halloween Pumpkin: Jack-O-Lantern Legends And Facts

pumpkin-carvingThe pumpkin lantern, also known as the Jack-o-Lantern, is today synonymous with Halloween. However, this was not always the case – not only is the use of pumpkin relatively recent, but the Jack-o-Lantern did not used to be associated with Halloween either! This article discusses some of the history of the Halloween lantern.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

The Jack-o-Lantern, according to legend, originated in Ireland, and was initially made not from a pumpkin, but a turnip. The old Irish legend tells of how there lived a farmer named Stingy Jack. Jack was rather lazy, but very cunning, and enjoyed playing tricks on people. One victim of his tricks was the devil, who he managed to trap, and only released when the devil agreed that he would not come for Jack’s soul when he died.

There are a number of variations on the story. In one version, Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him. To avoid paying for his drink, Jack asked the Devil to turn himself into a coin, but then he put the coin in his pocket, along with a silver cross. The cross prevented the devil from returning to his normal form, and Jack only released him on the condition that the devil not bother him for a year, and not claim his soul if he died.

In another version of the coin story, Jack was being chased by villagers from whom he had stolen goods. The devil appeared, as it was time for Jack to die, but Jack enticed the devil into playing a trick on the villagers by turning himself into a coin which Jack could use to pay for the stolen goods. When the coin disappeared, the villagers would fight over its disappearance, believing tha one of their number had stolen it. The devil, who found such trouble-making amusing, agreed to this plan, but then found himself in Jack’s wallet alongside a silver cross that Jack had also stolen, and was unable to change back to his normal form.

In a third version of the story, Jack tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree, then carved a cross into the bark (or placed crosses around the trunk), so the devil could not come down.

In every version of the story, Jack only released the devil when the devil agreed not to take his soul.

Jack’s plan backfired somewhat, however. When Jack eventually died, he was unable to go to heaven, because of his sinful lifestyle. But the devil, upset by Jack’s tricks, and staying true to his bargain, wouldn’t allow him into hell either, and sends him back out into the dark night, with the result that Jack was forced to spend eternity wandering in the darkness between heaven and hell. Jack complained that he could not see where to go, so the devil threw him a burning ember, which being from hell, never goes out. Jack was fond of eating turnips, and usually had one with him, so he carved a lantern from one of his turnips, and put the ember inside it. Guided by his lantern, Jack proceeded to spend eternity wandering the earth at night in search of a place to rest. The Irish began to refer to him as ‘Jack of the Lantern’, which was later shorted to Jack-o-Lantern.

The lantern became the symbol of a damned soul, and the Irish, Scottish and English would carve their own lanterns from turnips and other vegetables such as swedes, mangelwurzels and (in England) large beets, and then place them in the windows to scare away Jack and other evil spirits, particularly at Halloween time. Many believe that the Halloween vegetable lantern tradition was then brought to the US by the Irish and Scottish immigrants of the mid-19th century.

Debunking the Legend

Such is the legend about the origins of the Jack-o-Lantern. But like most legends, it is contradicted in a few ways by known facts:

The term ‘Jack-o-Lantern’ is not widely used outside the US

Although there is a very long tradition of making carved vegetable lanterns in the British Isles, the term Jack-o-Lantern does not appear to have been used in reference to these lanterns. In fact, the term, despite its supposedly Irish roots, is not very common outside of the US. It originally referred to a night watchman (man with a lantern – this usage dates back at least to the mid 17th century), and later, to the ignis fatuus, or will-o’-the wisp, and in some areas this use of the term persists today.

The use of the pumpkin lantern developed independently of the turnip lantern

Many people believe that the use of the Halloween pumpkin lantern was inspired by the turnip lantern tradition that was brought to the US by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the mid 19th century. In fact pumpkins had been used to make lanterns during the harvest season in the US long before the mass immigrations, so the pumpkin lantern was not a new phenomenon. However, its use may have been popularised more widely by the immigrants, who found pumpkins to be a useful substitute for turnips and other traditional vegetables.

Neither turnip or pumpkin lanterns were originally associated with Halloween

The carved vegetable lantern was not originally associated with Halloween either in the US or in Britain, but it has now become so. One reason is that at this time of year, it was traditionally believed that the barrier between the physical and the spirit worlds becomes thinner, and contact with the souls of the dead is more readily made. The lanterns were both symbolic of such wandering spirits, and were also used to scare them away. People also used to dress up in costumes (much like the Halloween costumes of today), in an attempt to scare these spirits away. Over time these traditions have become more specifically associated with the Halloween festivities.

But whatever its origins, it’s undeniable that over the last century or so, the Jack-o-Lantern – particularly the American pumpkin variety – has become inextricably associated with Halloween, which just wouldn’t be the same without it!


Melania Karel is entranced by all things supernatural and Halloween-related, and is webmaster of a treasure trove of spooky information and resources, including information about Halloween lanterns, such as pumpkin painting and other forms of decoration.

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