Jack-o-lanterns born from the Irish folk tales of “Stingy Jack”


The tradition of making jack-o-lanterns at Halloween is centuries old and goes back to an Irish legend about a thieving con man known as “Stingy Jack.”

One version of the story says that Jack was being chased by village people after he stole some things and that the devil appeared to him and told him it was time to die. Stingy Jack tricked the devil into turning into a coin that would pay for the stolen items but the coin wound up in Jack’s wallet beside a cross. Jack trapped the devil in his wallet and held the devil there without his powers.

Another version of the tale has Stingy Jack convincing the devil to turn himself into a coin so he could pay for their drinks at a pub. Jack decides to keep the coin and puts it in his pocket next to a silver cross, which keeps the devil from returning to his original form.

A third version has Stingy Jack enticing the devil to climb an apple tree to pick some fruit. Jack places crosses around the trunk of the tree or carves a cross into its bark so the devil can’t get down.

In all of the stories Stingy Jack lets the devil go after he agrees to never take Jack’s soul. When Jack dies years later, heaven won’t take him because he was evil and thieving.  Hell won’t have him either because the devil was angry at all the times Stingy Jack tricked him.

Stingy Jack now has nowhere to go and no light to guide him in his travels in the afterlife.  The devil throws him a burning coal and Stingy Jack carves a hole in a turnip and inserts the coal to make a lantern.  He wanders the world forever looking for a place to rest.  In Ireland, Stingy Jack was called “Jack of the Lantern” and “Jack-o-lantern.”

October 31 in Ireland was originally the pagan feast of Samhain in Gaelic parts and later became Halloween.  On Samhain it was believed that the spirits of the dead roamed the earth.  Vegetables such as turnips and potatoes were carved with scary faces to frighten away evil spirits from homes.

In the British Isles people carved scary faces into potatoes, turnips and beets to frighten Stingy Jack and the other evil spirits away.  Immigrants brought the tradition with them to America.

When the Irish came to America they discovered the pumpkin and began carving faces on it. The pumpkin would be hollowed out with a round lid on its top and a candle inserted.  The lit jack-o-lanterns would be placed on windowsills on Halloween to keep Stingy Jack and other dark spirits away.

Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” was an early American ghost story that featured a terrifying headless horseman who chases schoolteacher Ichabod Crane after a party and hurls a pumpkin at him, throwing Crane from his horse.

In some adaptations, a smashed pumpkin was found on the ground beside Crane’s hat the morning after he allegedly encountered the horseman. In the story Crane was never seen again.