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The Legend of Stingy Jack

As All Hallows Eve is upon us, I figured it would be fun to make a new blog post all about the history behind pumpkin carving. Just how far back does the history of this annual harvest tradition go? The answer is, a little bit further back in history than you might think.

As it turn out, the history of this age-old practice has roots back as far as the 16th Century, but it wasn’t until the 19th Century that the practice became widespread and popular – particularly in Ireland, however, instead of Pumpkins, since those didn’t exist in Ireland, people would carve Turnips and gourds. This carving and hollowing out of these vegetables found a practical use and were initially used to house a candle and made pretty decent lanterns.

This practice was typically done around the time of Harvest and Samhain to represent supernatural beings and people in Purgatory or they would function as a protective talisman to ward of evil spirits like that of Jack-Of-the-Lantern which I’ll go over shortly – as it was believed that Samhain (which as we know was a festival marking the end of the harvest) was a time when the veil between worlds was at its thinnest. They were also used to keep neighbors away and potential home intruders.

So as it goes with these things when the Irish and the Scots emigrated to America, they brought these practices and traditions with them. Now, in America, we had a much better option gourd family vegetable for carving things into which of course, was the Pumpkin. So by the mid 1800’s pumpkin carving started to become a popular activity around the fall harvest time, and even appeared in literature, like Washington Irvings The Legend of Sleepy Hollow where the Headless Horseman uses a lit up carved pumpkin as a makeshift head. Around this time the name Jack-O-Lantern would also become associated with these carved pumpkins based on an old Irish folk tale.

So what about the history behind the Jack-of-the-Lanterns? Well, this legend dates back to 16th Century Ireland and revolved around a character named Stingy Jack, who was a lying, cheating scoundrel of a man, and was also extremely witty. Some would even say had a "silver tongue." There’s a few variations of this story, but most versions started off describing that Jack had spent years of his life deceiving people and just all around not being a good man. One night while Jack was drunk and wandering down a road, he ran into a strange man. This man, as it turned out, was the Devil himself who had come for Jacks’ soul. However, Jack being the conniving person he was managed to convince the Devil to let him have one more drink before he met his ultimate fate.

The Devil, taking on the form of a man, accompanied Jack to a local tavern and the two spent the night drinking. As the night drew to a close, Jack was unable to pay the bar tab, but because of his quick thinking and witty ways, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin in order to pay for the tab. The Devil was delighted to use this level of trickery and then transformed himself into a coin. With the Devil now in the palm of Stingy Jack’s hand. He pulled the old dine and dash technique, put the Devil in his pocket and left. And as it turned out, Jack had a silver cross in this pocket, which prevented the Devil from transforming back to normal. Jack then bargained with the Devil that he would set him free it the Devil did not take revenge or come to claim his soul again for another year. In some versions its 10 years, The Devil then agreed to this deal, so Jack released him.

The Devil kept his end of the bargain and once a year passed, he came again to reap Jack’s soul. Jack was prepared though and this time he convinced the Devil to climb up a nearby apple tree to pick fruit for him so that he could eat one more apple before spending the rest of existence in the fiery pits of Hell. But unbeknownst to the Devil, sneaky old Jack had carved a cross into the tree, trapping the Devil in its canopy. The Devil was engaged that he had been tricked yet again. And of course, Jack bargained again with the devil, that he would set him free if and only he the Devil did not send his soul into eternal damnation the pits of Hell. The Devil complied with Jack’s request and Jack permitted the Devil to descend from the tree.

Many years later, Jack succumbed to his drinking habits and died. Jacks soul reached the gates of Heaven, expecting to be let in, but since he had led a life of sin, committing bad deeds and wrongdoing on Earth, he was turned away. Stingy Jack then turned towards Hell, because where else was a lost soul going to go? When he arrived, the Devil confronted Jack and explained that because of their deal all those years before, he could not and would not accept Jacks soul into Hell. The Devil then cursed him to wander the Earth for all eternity, with no resting place. Before the Devil sent Jack away from Hell he gave him a burning ember from Hell to light his way as a lost and wandering soul. Jack, trying to make the best out of the situation, carved out a turnip to create a lantern and placed this burning ember into it.

Stingy Jack illustration by Jovan Ukropina

According to the legend, some say you can see the spirit of Stingy Jack, now called Jack of the Lanterns, or Jack-O-Lantern wandering the countryside searching, but never finding a place to rest. And fun side note, the phenomena of Ghost Lights and swamp gas have been associated with this legend as well, but you might want to listen to my Podcast episode on Ghost Lights to learn more about that!

Happy Halloween Everyone!

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