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The Jack O’ Lantern – Why we carve pumpkins at Halloween

The Jack O’ Lantern – Why we carve pumpkins at Halloween

We think of the Halloween pumpkin lantern as an American invention but in fact it was the Irish who took the tradition of carving pumpkins to America, except the original Jack O’ Lantern was not a pumpkin because they didn’t exist in Ireland.

Celtic cultures actually carved turnips on All Hallows’ Eve and placed a glowing piece of coal or a candle in them, to ward off evil spirits.

There are many stories behind these turnip lanterns but one of the most popular comes from The Tale of Stingy Jack.

Stingy Jack was a grumpy old drunkard who liked to play malicious tricks on just about everyone including his family, friends and his mother. He was proud of his antics and boasted that he could trick the Devil himself. The Devil heard about Jack and paid him a visit. Jack was as good as his word and tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree. Once the Devil was in the tree, Stingy Jack hurriedly placed crosses around the base of its trunk. The Devil couldn’t touch the crosses, so he was stuck in the tree. Stingy Jack made the Devil promise him not to take his soul when he died. Reluctantly the Devil agreed, and Stingy Jack removed the crosses, and allowed the Devil to climb back down.

Halloween pumpkins

Many years later, when Jack died, he found his way to the pearly gates of Heaven. Saint Peter told him that because he’d been mean and cruel and had led a miserable, worthless life he could not let him enter Heaven. Stingy Jack then went down to Hell. The Devil smiled mischievously and said he was bound by the promise he’d made in the apple tree and would not allow him to enter Hell. Stingy Jack became really scared. He had nowhere to go and was doomed to wander about forever in the dark Netherworld between heaven and hell. He protested to the Devil that there was no light, so the Devil tossed him a piece of coal from the flames of Hell. Jack always carried a turnip with him because it was one of his favourite foods. He hollowed out the turnip and placed the glowing coal the Devil had given him inside. From that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, lighting his way as he went with his ‘Jack O’ Lantern’.

On all Hallows’ eve, it became the tradition for Irish people to hollow out Turnips, swedes, potatoes and beets. They placed a little light in them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away. These were the original Jack O’ Lanterns. In the 1800’s waves of Irish people travelled to America in search of better lives. These Irish immigrants quickly discovered that American Pumpkins were bigger and much easier to carve, so they began to use pumpkins for Jack O’ Lanterns. Eventually this new trend found its way back across the Atlantic to Ireland and the UK.


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