The Legend of Stingy Jack

18 Oct

People have been making jack-o’-lanterns – pumpkins with ghoulish faces and illuminated by candles, which are a sure sign of the Halloween season – for centuries. The practice of decorating jack-o’-lanterns originated in Ireland, where large turnips and potatoes served as early canvasses. In fact, the name, jack-o’-lantern, comes from an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, home of the pumpkin, and it became an integral part of Halloween festivities. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

The carving of vegetables has been a common practice in many parts of the world, and gourds were one of the earliest plant species farmed by humans c. 10,000 years ago. For example, gourds were used to carve lanterns by the Māori over 700 years ago; the Māori word for a gourd also describes a lampshade. It is believed that the custom of making jack-o’-lanterns at Hallowe’en time began in Ireland. In the 19th century, “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces,” were used on Halloween in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands. In these Gaelic-speaking regions, Halloween was also the festival of Samhain and was seen as a time when supernatural beings (the Aos Sí), and the souls of the dead, walked the earth. Jack-o’-lanterns were also made at Halloween time in Somerset (on Punkie Night) during the 19th century. By those who made them, the lanterns were said to represent either spirits or supernatural beings, or were used to ward off evil spirits. For example, sometimes they were used by Halloween participants to frighten people, and sometimes they were set on windowsills to keep harmful spirits out of one’s home. It has also been suggested that the jack-o’-lanterns originally represented Christian souls in purgatory, as Halloween is the eve of All Saints’ Day (1 November)/All Souls’ Day (2 November). On Halloween in 1835, the Dublin Penny Journal published a long story on the legend of “Jack-o’-the-Lantern”. In 1837, the Limerick Chronicle refers to a local pub holding a carved gourd competition and presenting a prize to “the best crown of Jack McLantern”. The term “McLantern” also appears in an 1841 publication of the same paper. There is also evidence that turnips were used to carve what was called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern” in Worcestershire, England, at the end of the 18th century. In North America, adaptations of Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820) often show the Headless Horseman with a pumpkin or jack-o’-lantern in place of his severed head. (In the original story, a shattered pumpkin is discovered next to Ichabod Crane’s abandoned hat on the morning after Crane’s supposed encounter with the Horseman.)

The story of the jack-o’-lantern comes in many forms and is similar to the story of Will-o’-the-wisp retold in different forms across Western Europe, including, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden. In Switzerland, children will leave bowls of milk or cream out for mythical house spirits called Jack o’ the bowl. The term jack-o’-lantern was originally used to describe the visual phenomenon ignis fatuus (lit., “foolish fire”) known as a will-o’-the-wisp in English folklore. Used especially in East England, its earliest known use dates to the 1660s. The term “will-o’-the-wisp” uses “wisp” (a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch) and the proper name “Will”: thus, “Will-of-the-torch.” The term jack o’lantern is of the same construction: “Jack of [the] lantern. In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns. In a jack-o’-lantern, the top of the pumpkin or turnip is cut off to form a lid, the inside flesh is scooped out, and an image—usually a scary or funny face—is carved out of the rind to expose the hollow interior. To create the lantern effect, a light source, traditionally a flame such as a candle or tea light, is placed within before the lid is closed. However, artificial jack-‘o-lanterns with electric lights are also marketed. It is common to see jack-o’-lanterns on doorsteps and otherwise used as decorations prior to and on Halloween. The legend has evolved over the years and today a hollowed pumpkin has become the vegetable of choice used to perpetuate the lore of Stingy Jack. Next time you see a jack-o’-lantern in the distance, make sure to double-check that it’s not old Stingy Jack trying to lure you to your death!

2 Responses to “The Legend of Stingy Jack”

  1. Von October 19, 2020 at 6:52 pm #

    Great story about stingy jack although I have lived in Ireland for 15 years and I am married to an Irish lass I had no idea of where the pumpkins for Halloween came from.Will we be getting a ghost story this Christmas?

    • ghostcities October 20, 2020 at 9:32 am #

      Thanks – and yes you certainly will be getting a Christmas ghost story 🙂

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