Shining Light on a Halloween Tradition: The Legend of the Jack-O-Lantern
Written by Jessi Entel on October 4, 2023
Jack-o-lanterns have become a symbol of Halloween for centuries, with origins that can be traced back to ancient folklore. The tale behind these ghoulish glowing gourds has fascinating roots.
The origins of jack-o-lanterns can be traced back to the Celtic festival known as Samhain. This ancient tradition celebrated the end of the Celtic harvest and marked the beginning of winter.
People believed that on the eve of Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and spiritual world was the thinnest, which allowed spirits to walk with the living. To ward off evil spirits, the Celtics would carve scary faces into turnips or potatoes and light bonfires.
The most common jack-o-lantern legend though is the tale of an Irish character known as Stingy Jack.
According to legend, Stingy Jack was a trickster, so tricky that he even tricked the Devil on multiple occasions.
When Jack died, God would not allow him into Heaven because he was so mischievous in his lifetime and the Devil was so angry at Jack for all of his tricks, he banished him from Hell. So, Jack was sent off into the darkness of night with only a piece of burning coal to light his way.
Jack, being a clever soul, carved out a turnip and place the burning coal inside to create a lantern, giving him the nickname “Jack-o-lantern”.
But how did the tradition of carving turnips or potatoes, shift into carving pumpkins?
Turnips and potatoes were traditionally carved until Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 19th century. They quickly discovered that pumpkins, which were native to the Americas, were much easier to carve and a lot larger, making them easier to work with. So, pumpkins became the preferred choice to create the glowing faces.
These decorations are a beloved tradition and an integral part of Halloween festivities. Whether you carve a jack-o-lantern out of a pumpkin, potato, or a turnip, the frightening faces symbolize warding off evil spirits and the glowing candlelight inside is a reminder of Stingy Jack’s coal that lit the trickster’s way.
So while you carve your jack-o-lanterns this season, it is worthwhile to remember the history and folklore behind one of the world’s favorite Halloween traditions.