It’s Halloween. Time to help your kids develop their bed-wetting habits. Time to buy a ton of candy, claim it’s for trick-or-treaters, turn off the porch light, and gorge yourself on waxy chocolate. Time to carve the ol’ jack-o’-lantern.
One of my favorite Halloween myths is the origin story of the jack-o’-lantern: the trickster legend of Stingy Jack. This folk tale comes from Ireland, which was also a major cultural center for the Celts, who observed the festival of Samhain, which serves as the root from which our modern Halloween sprang.
According to the story, which may be centuries old, a drunkard known as Stingy Jack was infamous throughout Ireland as a liar and a cheat. He was especially despised for his love of trickery, his favorite pastime.
One day, while bored and lounging lazily around Hell, Lucifer happened to overhear some horrible stories about Jack’s devious skills, which were apparently even more dastardly than his own. Not to be outdone by a mere drunken Irishman, the Devil decided to find Jack and see if the stories were true.
That night, while stumbling in an alcoholic haze through the darkened Irish hills, Jack came upon a body, lying in the road. Always curious when it comes to inert bodies (dead people don’t usually press charges against thieves), Jack shambled over for a closer look.
Turning the body over, Jack was surprised to find the face of Satan staring back at him. Assuming he was there to take Jack to his final reward, he pleaded to be taken to the local pub for one last drink. Seeing the humor in the situation, the Devil conceded.
The rest of the night should probably have its own legend attached, considering the new levels of debauchery discovered by the pair as they drank the pub dry. When the party finally died down and the bill showed up, Jack, who wasn’t called “Stingy” for nothing, turned to the Devil and demanded he pay for it.
Apparently, the Devil doesn’t always carry cash and was stuck with a massive tab and a head full of booze. Left in a somewhat awkward position, he agreed to Jack’s suggestion that he use his devilish powers to turn himself into a silver coin to pay the already pissed off bartender.
Once Satan had transformed into the coin, Jack quickly scooped it up and placed it in his pocket, right next to a crucifix he had been carrying, trapping the poor bastard. To be released from such foul trickery, the Devil agreed to a deal with Jack: in return for his freedom, he wouldn’t come after Jack for ten years (or one year, depending on the source).
Sure enough, ten years later, Jack comes across Lucifer again. Complaining about his hunger, he pleads for one last apple before the Devil drags him off to perdition. As you’ve probably guessed, the Devil shows his stupidity once again, and agrees to climb a nearby tree and pluck an apple for Jack. While in the tree, Jack draws four crosses around its base, trapping Satan once more. This time, he gets the Devil to promise to never take him to Hell in return for his freedom.
Years later, Jack finally has his last drink and keels over. As he walks up to the gates of Heaven, due to his sinful life of trickery and boozing, he is stopped by St. Peter and turned away. Nonplussed, he goes to the gates of Hell and asks for admission there. The Devil, required to honor his agreement with Jack, turns him away, sending an ember along with him to mark him as a spirit.
Jack carves out a turnip, fashioning it into a lantern, and drops the ember inside. From that day on, “Jack of the Lantern’s” ghost could be seen roaming the countryside, vainly searching for a place to rest.
To keep Stingy Jack and the other evil spirits known to walk the earth during Samhain at bay, the Irish would carve frightening faces into turnips, potatoes, and beets, place an ember inside of them, and set them on their windowsills and doorsteps. When Irish settlers arrived in America during the 19th century, they adapted their tradition by using pumpkins, a gourd that is native to North America, to carve their jack-o’-lanterns.
Stingy Jack still hasn’t shown his ugly mug around these parts, so I guess pumpkins work just as well as turnips.