Of all the traditional symbols of modern Halloween perhaps nothing captures the spirit of the holiday more than the Jack-o-lantern. For generations of Americans, the jack-o-lantern is to Halloween what the Christmas tree is to Christmas. One would be hard pressed to celebrate the holiday without it.
And though the jack-o-lantern has thoroughly become an American tradition, it is worth noting that its origins are much older...and foreign to our coasts. Long ago in the Irish highlands, scattered groups of local agrarian people, known as the Celts, created jack-o-lanterns during the celebration of Samhain (later converted to All Saints Day or All Hallows Day with the arrival of Christianity) to honor the memory of "Stingy Jack." And who was Stingy Jack? I'm glad you asked.
The Irish legend states that Stingy Jack was a miserable, old drunk who liked to play tricks on everyone. On one particular evening, Stingy Jack was taking part in his favorite pastime (getting drunk) when the devil decided to pay him a visit. Upon seeing the devil, Stingy Jack offered him a chair and poured the devil a tall, cool ale. As the evening passed and the two men enjoyed each other's company, Stingy Jack realized that he didn't have enough money to pay his bill. Realizing his dilemma, the devil offered to change himself into a coin so that jack could pay his bill. All that was required was for Jack to give the devil his soul, which Jack was more than willing to do. After changing into the coin, however, the devil was cleverly outwitted by Stingy Jack, who pocketed the coin (devil) along with a silver cross, which prevented the devil from changing back into his original form. After some time had passed, Jack agreed to release the devil, under the condition that he would not return for a year. With no other option available to him, the devil reluctantly acquiesced to Stingy Jack's demands.
Once the year had passed, the devil sought his revenge. He tracked Stingy Jack to an apple orchard where Jack was forced to climb a tree for safety. As the devil pursued Jack up the apple tree, Jack once again outwitted the king of the underworld by carving a cross into the tree's bark, thus preventing the devil from coming down. This time, Jack made the devil promise to never lay claim to his soul, to which the devil reluctantly agreed.
Shortly thereafter, Stingy Jack downed one too many adult beverages and kicked the bucket. As the legend states, Jack was denied entrance into the pearly gates of heaven, due to the wrenched life he had chosen to live. God then sent Jack's soul to the gates of hell, where the devil was also unable to permit his entrance due to their pact. As a result, the devil sent Jack on his way to roam the world lonely in limbo. Knowing that his world would be dark and isolated, the devil gave Jack an ember from the fires of hell, which he placed into a hollowed out turnip. The burning ember not only became Jack's exclusive source of light, but also served as a warning to the living of his coming. As a result, the Irish people made sure to hollow out hideous figures in turnips and potatoes on every All Hallows Day (Halloween) to ward off Stingy Jack from their homes.
The immigration of thousands of Irish settlers to the United States in the 19th century meant that the traditions of Halloween (and Stingy Jack) were sure to make the journey as well. Upon their arrival, Irish settlers discovered the indigenous pumpkin, which was much larger and easier to carve than turnips. As a result, the "Jack-o-lantern" became synonymous with the American pumpkin.
So as you enjoy tomorrow's festivities, be sure to protect yourself from the wrath of "Stingy Jack" by carving out a pumpkin...or a turnip if you're old school!