How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O’ Lantern

How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O’ Lantern

Wyatt Redd - October 21, 2017

The jack-o’-lantern is one of the most cherished Halloween traditions. And like many holiday traditions, not many people know exactly where it came from. It’s simply one of the things you are supposed to do at Halloween. But as it turns out, the history of the jack-o’-lantern can be traced back to Ireland.

There, the phrase we associate today with carved pumpkins originally meant something very different. Originally, jack-o’-lantern or “Jack-of-the-Lantern” referred to mysterious lights that floated over the bogs and a stingy man who once made a deal with the Devil.

You may have heard of bog lights before, though they go by many different names: Will-o’-the-wisps, corpse candles, or fox-fire, to name a few. Regardless of what you call them, the phenomenon is the same. Bog lights are glowing orbs that sometimes rise out of swampy ground and float through the night.

Today, scientists believe that they are collections of swamp gas that spontaneously ignite under the right conditions. But in the time before they were well understood, people often interpreted them as the spirits of the dead, forced to wander through the countryside. The Irish had their own theory about these lights and referred to them as Jack-of-the-Lantern.

How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O’ Lantern
Jack-o-lantern. Public Domain Images

The story of Jack-of-the-Lantern, or Stingy Jack as he was known in life, usually goes something like this: One night, Stingy Jack was drinking in a tavern when a mysterious man in dark clothes walked in. Jack invited the man to share a drink with him. Upon learning that the stranger was the Devil, and upon being presented with the tab, Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay his bill. The Devil agreed on the condition that he gets Jack’s soul in exchange.

But instead of using the coin to pay his bill, Jack took it with him and carved the shape of the cross on the coin so that the Devil couldn’t change back. The Devil pleaded with Jack to let him go and Jack agreed, but only if the Devil promised to never collect the soul Jack owed him. The Devil reluctantly agreed and so Jack scratched out the cross on the coin and freed the Devil from his pocket. But according to legend, this wasn’t the only time that Jack and the Devil would meet.

Later, the same Jack was sitting in an orchard when he ran into the Devil once again. Jack, as lazy as he was greedy, convinced the Devil to climb into an apple tree and pick Jack something to eat. The Devil agreed, once again on the condition that Jack would pay for the apples with his soul. But once the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk, trapping the Devil. Jack and the Devil reached an agreement that Jack would let him go if he agreed to never take Jack into Hell. Unfortunately for Jack, this deal didn’t work out the way he planned.

How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O’ Lantern
A 19th Century Halloween Celebration. Project Gutenberg

When Jack finally died, his soul went to Heaven. However, God refused to let him in because of his sins. Jack then went to Hell, seeking a place for his soul to rest. But the Devil, true to his word, refused Jack as well. Trapped between Heaven and Hell, Jack’s spirit was forced to wander around the world of the living with only a lantern carved from a gourd to light his way. Thus, whenever people saw the lights floating out of the bogs, they attributed them to Jack and his lantern as he wandered across the world seeking somewhere to rest.

The story of how the day of Halloween came to be associated with these ghostly lights and the story of Jack is harder to pin down. Halloween itself is a religious holiday which celebrates the lives of Christian saints, thus the original name, “Hallowed (holy) Eve.” But much of the way that Halloween is celebrated (including the carving of lanterns from gourds) can actually be traced back to the religious practices of the pre-Christian Irish and their festival celebrating the fall harvest, “Samhain.”

Originally, Samhain was one of the most important holidays in the Gaelic calendar. It was celebrated on October 31st, the beginning of winter, marking the death of the old year and the beginning of the process of rebirth in the next. And because winter is the time of year when vegetation dies, it also became a time to honor the spirits of people who had passed on. And this practice of honoring the spirits of the dead in the celebration of Samhain could be why carved jack-o’-lanterns became associated with Halloween.

It was believed that during Samhain the spirits of the dead would travel from house to house, seeking hospitality. To attract these good spirits, Irish households would carve lanterns from gourds and place them near their houses along with offerings to the spirits. And to frighten away evil spirits, they would carve ghoulish faces into these lamps. The traditions surrounding Samhain serve as models for many of the traditions surrounding Halloween, which implies that many of these pre-Christian practices managed to survive in some form to the present day.

As was often the case, the process of Christianization didn’t completely destroy these pagan customs. Instead, the traditions were kept largely intact and the stories surrounding them changed as their pre-Christian origins were forgotten.

It seems as though sometime after the 16th Century, the story of Jack and his lantern came to be associated with these traditional gourd lamps and people began to refer to them as “jack-o’-lanterns.” And as with many traditions surrounding Halloween, the Irish carried the tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns with them as they immigrated to the United States.

Learn More About Pagan Traditions: Christian Holidays and Beliefs.

How the Devil and an Irish Folk Story Created the Jack O’ Lantern
Some Early 20th Century Costumes. Vintage Everyday

One of the most interesting things about Halloween is the way the celebration of the holiday has changed since European immigrants brought the practice to the United States. Many of the traditions that make up the modern celebration of Halloween arrived with Irish immigrants, many of whom fled Ireland in the 19th century to escape the famine in their home country. The Irish settled throughout the United States, where they began practicing many of the customs surrounding Halloween that they had back in Ireland.

Over time, the other communities in the United States adopted some of these practices into their own traditional fall celebrations. Communities throughout the original thirteen colonies always had celebrations to celebrate a successful harvest. But following the large-scale immigration of the Irish in the 19th Century, many communities began to adopt customs like the carving of jack-o’-lanterns. And in the United States, the traditional gourd lantern was replaced with the pumpkin, which was native to North America and offered a lot more space to work with when carving.

As with many traditions in America, the combination of different cultures led to brand new ways of celebrating traditional holidays. And over the years, American celebrations of Halloween lost most of the religious overtones that the holiday was originally imbued with. Instead, Halloween became a secular holiday that people practiced simply because it was fun.

People in America found that they enjoyed getting together with their neighbors to celebrate on this one particular day in October. So all of the traditions that immigrants brought from Ireland and other parts of Europe were blended together to become a new holiday that was both derived and distinct from the way the holiday was practiced in the Old World.

And in the United States, entirely new customs were invented to celebrate Halloween, like trick-or-treating. Trick-or-treating, where children dress up in costumes and go from house to house collecting candy seems to be a distinctly American one. There’s a case to be made that it may derive in some way from traditional Irish practices where people dressed up as the spirits of the dead and went from house seeking food in exchange for a verse or song.

Or it could derive from the more widespread practice of “souling,” where people would dress up as Christian saints and visit neighbors. But the phrase “trick-or-treating” didn’t actually seem to enter common usage until the 20th Century. And few images produced depicting the holiday show children in costumes until that time.

It’s always difficult to say with certainty where any of our holiday traditions come from. They are folk practices that people pass down from one generation to the next. So we have to rely on the folklore surrounding them to make sense of these traditions. But folklore tends to get twisted and mythologized over time. Thus, where oral traditions don’t give us a perfect explanation, we have to speculate based on what we know of the early history of these practices.

So, we may never be completely sure where any of our Halloween traditions come from. But when it comes to this explanation of the jack-o’-the-lantern, it’s a good story. And for Halloween, that’s what really counts.