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The Lost History of the Jack-o'-Lantern

I hold a bachelor's degree in literature. My main research interests are the history, folklore, myths and legends of Northwestern Europe.

Let's explore the history of the Jack-'o-Lantern.

Let's explore the history of the Jack-'o-Lantern.

Understanding the Roots of the Jack-o'-Lantern

Like most of our holiday rituals and traditions, getting to the true roots of the origins proves difficult. There is a lot of bad research out there and stories told by sources like the History Channel, which are based on lazy and inadequate research.

The true history of many of our traditions and customs has become lost in the annals of time. The average person does not sit around reading folklore journals from the 1800s or search for out-of-print folklore books (only geeks like me do that!) but learns history from mass media, which often doesn't get the story quite right.

Additionally, over the last century, America emerged as a global media giant, meaning that American television and film have been viewed worldwide for generations. I believe this has caused some confusion when it comes to certain folk customs which came to America from Britain, died out in Britain, but remained popular in American culture.

So, I am not going to give you a rundown of Halloween in the last century, of young Scots-Irish-American scamps running around the streets making mischief at the turn of the 20th century. You can find enough of that on the History Channel. I like to pick up where the History Channel leaves off and take you back further to the ancient pagan origins of our modern holidays.

Because much of this occurred in pre-history (in the context of oral cultures that did not leave written records), we can find our hidden history buried within a field that doesn't get the attention it deserves these days: folklore. (For more on why folklore is so important, read Folklore and the Preservation of Heritage.)

This image seems to demonstrate the spirit within the lantern leaping out and coming to life. This photo is by Matthew Gordon.

This image seems to demonstrate the spirit within the lantern leaping out and coming to life. This photo is by Matthew Gordon.

Who Is Jack? And What Does the "O" Mean?

As many already know, the "o" in jack-o'-lantern is a contraction for "of." It is more or less slang for "Jack of the Lantern."

There were originally regional variations in different parts of Britain, such as Jack-a-Lantern, Jacky Lantern, Jack w' a Lantern, and likely others.

So what exactly did this mean?

Well, Jack was often used as a euphemism for a spirit. It could sometimes be a clownish figure, a good or bad spirit, a nature guardian, or other folkloric figures. You see more examples of Jack as a spirit in other folkloric motifs such as Jack in the Green (and a myriad of other Jacks in British folklore: Jack Frost, Jack-in-Irons, Jack o'Legs, and many more).

And, as with all of our ancestral customs and beliefs from the days when celebrations were not described in books or dictated at the pulpit, the lore associated with these customs varied over time and by geography.

Where Did the Jack-o'-Lantern Come From?

It seems likely that the jack-o'-lantern has ties to pre-Christian origins. We arrive at this conclusion not by hard evidence like a written record because the inhabitants of Britain did not record things in writing during the pre-Christian era.

We assume the pagan origins of folk customs like the jack-o'-lantern by analyzing them within the context and framework in which they are presented in the folklore and the larger folk culture.

Halloween evolved from the old Celtic pagan holiday Samhain, which was considered the start of the New Year, to the ancient Celts.

The many other European cultures recognized Calendar high days at similar times throughout the year and often had similar meanings and practices. But they would, of course, be known by different names in different regions. For example, the October 31st festival on the Isle of Man was called Hop tu Naa.

Samhain was considered a day of very high spiritual activity when the veil between the worlds became so thin that spirits could slip through very easily. It was a time to honor the dead and ancestors who had passed. But it was also a time to be wary of malicious spirits.

Various superstitious or magical traditions (depending on your point of view) were used to ward off evil and protect the home. The original jack-o'-lanterns were carved from turnips, beets, or gourds.

The intention behind the practice was to scare spirits by frightening them with a face as wicked as they were—fight fire with fire approach.

A traditional jack-o'-lantern

A traditional jack-o'-lantern

Evolution of Legend and Practice

Because Europe's Christian holidays were built on top of the original pagan holidays, new legends and stories were devised to give Christian explanations to the pagan practices still being carried on among the peasantry. This was true in Britain and also on the mainland European continent.

This is one major stumbling block to finding the true origins of our holiday customs. The Church was so effective at masking the truth with its smoke and mirrors that even today, many "history" documentaries trace holiday origins to legends of Catholic saints instead of digging deeper for the true story which was usurped by the religious tale.

A modern Samhain altar

A modern Samhain altar

This is most prominent in articles and documentaries about Santa Claus. We see stories about the Catholic Saint Nicholas, which barely mention the previous mythological origins of Santa Claus, such as his relation to Odin and other Northern European shamanic figures. The true figure of Yuletide was so threatening to the Church, and apparently, the Nativity Story was not powerful enough to drown it out that they created a new story about a figure called Saint Nicholas who was superimposed on top of Odin (and Odin's regional variants).

And, if you are naïve enough to believe that stories about Catholic saints are based in fact, I urge you to consult your nearest medievalist about hagiography.

Enter Stingy Jack

Halloween fared better than other seasonal holidays. Although the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Hallows Eve were superimposed over Samhain, they have now faded into obscurity apart from a minority of devout Catholic practitioners, while Halloween has grown into a wildly popular holiday with clear pagan connotations.

There is no singular Catholic saint claiming ownership of this holiday or acting as a figurehead in the way Saint Nicholas usurped Yule, and Saint Brigid usurped Imbolc (which was turned into Candlemas), and neither were stories of the life of Christ cut and pasted on top of it, as was done with Yuletide and Easter. Perhaps this was the loophole that allowed Halloween to stand fast like a beacon from ancient times.

But, All Hallows Eve did develop its own Christian legends; they were just of less epic proportions than the ones given to other holidays. As Samhain became All Hallow's Eve, the jack-o'-lantern was placed within a Christian context in the legend of Stingy Jack.

Jack-o'-lanterns with a Celtic Cross in the background

Jack-o'-lanterns with a Celtic Cross in the background

The Story of Stingy Jack

This story has many variations, but they share the general gist. Stingy Jack was not a spirit but rather a miserly drunkard. Jack disliked paying for his booze, so he duped others into buying his drinks. He became so good at his ruse that the Devil himself was bamboozled by Jack.

Well, the Devil isn't exactly known for his charity, so he turned himself into a coin with which Jack could buy his ale under the condition that Jack's soul belonged to him. Imagine the Devil's surprise when Jack foiled him! This sneaky drunk was smarter than he looked. Jack placed the coin inside his pocket, rubbing it against a small silver crucifix. The power of the cross negated Satan's contract, and the Devil had to swear never to let Jack's soul enter Hell.

But, the last laugh was on Jack. Because of his philandering and wicked ways, God also refused Jack entry into Heaven. So, Jack's soul was doomed to eternally wander the Earth. Mocking him, the Devil tossed a burning ember that would never burn out, landing at Jack's feet.

Making the best of the situation, Jack carved out a turnip and placed the ember inside, creating a lantern to light his way as he wandered forever more, always searching for his final resting place.

"Stingy Jack," by Devon Devereaux

"Stingy Jack," by Devon Devereaux

Meaning of the Stingy Jack Legend

The legend of Stingy Jack may not usurp Halloween with the same ferocity as other Christianized holiday legends spread by the Church to hijack other pre-Christian holidays, but it did give an explanation for the widespread custom of the jack-o'-lantern, which fell within a Christian dichotomy of good and evil.

It introduces God and the Devil as characters who determine Jack's fate. Just when Jack thinks he got away with his trickery, it is God who gets the last laugh.

The intended lesson is that if you dabble with evil, you will pay for it. And, of course, the Old Ways upon which Halloween customs are based were considered evil by the Church.

A wonderful illustration that ties together the story of Stingy Jack with the old turnip lantern and modern pumpkin lanters.

A wonderful illustration that ties together the story of Stingy Jack with the old turnip lantern and modern pumpkin lanters.

How to Distinguish Legitimate History From Bogus

When weeding through the evidence to determine what is legitimate versus bogus information, try to take what is being presented and place it in context with what you already know to be true to see if this piece fits within the larger picture.

Using this critical technique makes the Legend of Stingy Jack so very interesting because it fits within the established framework of what we know about Halloween. We know that it was a pagan high day turned into a Christian one. We also know that our other holidays went through the same transformation. This is common knowledge by now. Most Christians (apart from very ignorant ones) do realize that Jesus was not born on December 25th, if he was even born at all (and I DO believe that he was, but that is another story!).

So, when mass media television programs or articles on the internet attempt to explain the roots of a holiday known to have pagan origins by suggesting it originated as a Christian legend, stop and think about whether that makes sense. Does it make sense for the origin of the jack-o'-lantern to come from this Christian Stingy Jack tale? Or does it make more sense that this tale was spun to take the emphasis off of pagan origins and give it a Christian meaning?

The next time you see a History Channel documentary on Santa Claus, stop to do the same analysis. Does it really make sense for the Church to take the emphasis away from Jesus' birth by elevating a saint? Or does it make more sense for the Church to be frustrated that pagan Yule traditions continued to be practiced by the commoners, so they invented a holiday figure to distract them?

© 2014 Carolyn Emerick


Bill of the North on September 11, 2017:

Thank you very much Carolyn for this wonderful article. It is truly educational. I learned a lot from it.

Knowing that Halloween and Christmas are really European holidays and not Christian ones makes me rest easier celebrating them. Especially since I was not raised doing so. Continuing the traditions of our forefathers makes me feel good about all of this.

Your work is much needed in the West.

Sincerely, Bill

ohiograndma on October 08, 2015:

Carolyn, I do enjoy all your writing and am pleased to be able to follow you on Facebook. I am a Christian who appreciates how the early followers co-opted the Pagan traditions - which I have always thought was very clever of them, since people don't like to give up their traditions! However, aren't there things that many religions have in common? For example, "son of God," "born of a virgin," "rose from the dead," et cetera. These same traits were given to Egyptian gods and goddesses, and the Greeks and Romans, too. I have just always assumed these aspects of each faith were such successful marketing ploys among the homosapiens that any religion would adopt them! So I can't very well be annoyed with the Christians for stealing Pagan holidays, when obviously many others liked these stories, too.

Personally, I think it is a shame that some are put off religion by these superficial things, when faith has so much to offer us. Especially now, when people seem to want to fight over "the one true faith," I wish people could look at it in an historical context, with the takeaway being a kinder - and more magical! - world!

Keep up the good work!

john1948 on July 04, 2015:

Another fascinating article Carolyn, thank you

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 29, 2014:

Enjoyed reading this. Other Eastern traditions have similar beliefs. Cambodian Buddhists, for example, believe that during Pchum Ben, the time when the separation between our world and that of the spirit opens, the spirits especially that of ancestors have to be appeased.

Dragos from Romania on October 25, 2014:

Very interesting and in-depth information about Jack-O-Lanterns. I didn't know they used to be carved out of turnips originally. Great read!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 24, 2014:

I must be somewhat of a nerd, because I enjoy learning stuff like, you never know when you are going to win a trivia game based on random information like this. :) So thanks, in advance, for the game I'm going to win.

Natasha Pelati from South Africa on October 23, 2014:

Great article! we don't really celebrate Halloween here in South Africa but I love that the kids get dressed up and go trick or treating. We tried it here once but there were no treats.

kevin murphy from Ireland on October 23, 2014:

This was a brilliant read! Thank you. I always wondered about carving pumpkins and what it all meant. I love it! :)

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 22, 2014:

This is an interesting and thought provoking hub, Carolyn. It fits the theme of Halloween very well!

Carolyn Emerick (author) on October 21, 2014:

Thanks, Polly! Yeah I guess it's sort of like the seed came from Britain, transplanted to America as a sapling, then it grows into an untamable man-eating wildebeest monster plant that is blasted over the mass media consumer frenzied airwaves before it returns to Britain, leaving Britons scratching their heads in bewilderment, tee-hee.

Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on October 21, 2014:

What a great read, Carolyn! As you mentioned before, it's funny how traditions have bounced across to America with emigrants, then have bounced back to the British Isles with new lore and customs. It is quite charming really. I had not heard about Stingy Jack. Upvoted and shared for you.