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The History of the Jack-o-Lantern

By Charles Hopkins Published 08/8/2006 | Kids & Teens

Every Halloween, people all over the country get ready for a little frightful fun. Decorations adorn front yards, porches are draped with cobwebs, and treats are given away at many homes, much to the delight of both old and young.

Then we have a true Halloween staple that no home is complete without: the Jack-o-Lantern. But where do we get this tradition of carving out a pumpkin, complete with an otherworldly grin and a candle inside? 

The story can be traced back to Ireland during the 18th century. According to the legend, there once was a blacksmith named Jack. From all accounts, Jack was the type of man who enjoyed his pour at the local pub. One night, he was out drinking and had managed to use up all the money he had with him. When the barkeep refused to serve him anything else, Jack roared that he would make a deal with the devil himself in order to get one more pint. In a burst of sparks and smoke, Lucifer himself appears and agrees to accept Jack's soul in exchange for paying for one last drink. As Jack downs his last pint, the devil turns himself into a sixpence, to be used as payment to the barkeep. Quickly, Jack grabs the coin and places it in his coin purse, where he also has a small silver cross. 

With Satan unable to change his shape, Jack makes a deal. He will free the devil if in exchange Satan will grant Jack another ten years of life. Lucifer agrees and Jack removes the coin from his purse. With a howl of rage, old Scratch disappears in a burst of fire and smoke.

Ten years later, Satan spots Jack walking along on a country road and comes to collect his due. Still not ready to give up his soul, Jack entreats the devil to climb into a nearby apple tree and allow Jack to enjoy one last sweet piece of fruit. As the devil climbs into the tree and plucks an apple, Jack pulls out his pocketknife and swiftly carves a cross into the bark. Trapped in the tree, Satan has no choice but to grant Jack the gift of his soul, with the provision that Satan will never again attempt to gain control of it.

As is true for all living things, Jack lived out his appointed days and finally did die. Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates, he found his way barred. Jack, because of his wicked ways, would not be able to enter Heaven. Making his way down into Hell, Jack found himself unwelcome there as well. It seems that Satan remembered well their encounters and was adamant that he would not lay any claim on Jack's soul, per their last bargain.

Rejected by both Heaven and Hell, Jack had no choice but to return to the earth. Before leaving the gates of Hell, Jacked asked Satan to at least give him something to help him find his way through the darkness and void back to his home. The devil relented, and allowed one of the embers of Hell to be imbedded in a turnip Jack was carrying. The turnip with the fire from Hell served has Jacks' lantern, allowing his spirit to return back to the earth, doomed to never find an eternal resting place. 

Popular as folklore among the Irish, people in villages would leave turnips, potatoes, rutabagas and other root vegetables outside their doors, painted with frightsome faces in order to discourage the living dead from trying to enter their homes. Some times, the vegetables would be hollowed out and a candle placed within, to confuse the wandering spirit. 

The Irish immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century brought the mythologies of the Jack-o-Lantern with them. Finding some of the vegetables they usually used to be in short supply, the Irish immigrants turned to the pumpkin, which always seemed to be plentiful in the autumn of the year. Rather than painting on a face, carving out eyes, a nose and a grinning mouth became more commonplace, as did the use of a candle in the pumpkin. The custom quickly spread beyond the Irish community and was enthusiastically adopted all over the country.

Today, the Jack-o-Lantern is perhaps the single most popular decoration associated with modern Halloween rituals, and one that will be with us for many years to come.