Thursday Myths & Legends: Jack O’ Lanterns


Walking around town, I’m starting to see more and more pumpkins out on porches.  Halloween is certainly coming on fast.  Did you ever wonder why we carve up pumpkins with scary faces and light them up with candles, though?  I have.

There are a few different stories as to how Jack o’ Lanterns were started, but they all follow more or less the same.  There’s a man named Jack who was just of the worst class of people – disorderly, drunk, and usually in debt.  The how and why differ, but in all of the stories, he somehow manages to trick and trap the devil, by means of a cross—in one he’s being chased out of town for his debts and convinces the devil to turn into a coin to trick the townspeople, turning them against each other when the coin would later disappear.  The devil jumps into his pocket as a silver coin, but lands next to a cross and is trapped.  In another story Jack convinces the devil to climb a tree, then carves a cross into the trunk.

What happens after this is that he bargains to let the devil go if he promises to never take Jack’s soul, which he does, and so Jack lives out the rest of his life, but he’s been such a bad person, he can’t get into Heaven but when he goes down to Hell, the devil reminds Jack of their bargain and turns him away out of spite for having been tricked by him.  When Jack asks where he is to go, and how he is to find his way, the devil mockingly tosses him an ember from Hell that will never fade, and Jack hollowed out a turnip (sometimes given to him by a wiseman, or God) and carried it as a lantern as he walked the earth, searching for a place of rest.

So, moral of the story—don’t mess with the devil, kids. 😉

Interestingly enough, though, the phrase “jack o’ lantern” originally referred to night watchmen or will’o the wisps, the strange flickering light over peat bogs.  It still does mean the latter in Labrador and Newfoundland.

About Lisa Asanuma

Lisa is a professional freelance writer and editor, along with a bookbinder and knitting obsessee. Lisa has a passion for YA literature (inside her passion for literature in general) and is currently working on her first novel. View all posts by Lisa Asanuma

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