A malicious grin lit by a single candle, the pumpkin Jack-O-Lantern is possibly the most recognisable symbol of Halloween. But where exactly does the tradition come from? In this Halloween themed special, we carve out the origins of the Jack-O-Lantern?
Believe it or not, the tradition began in Ireland with a lesser celebrated root vegetable; the turnip.
The Jack-O-Lantern takes its roots from Irish folklore and the story of Stingy Jack.
According to the legend, Stingy Jack, a drunk known throughout Ireland for his devious deeds and lying nature, used a crucifix to trap Satan in an apple tree. Only letting him down when Satan agreed to never take Stingy Jack’s soul to hell.
When the inevitable happened and Jack eventually passed on, he was turned away from both Heaven and Hell. With nowhere to go, Stingy Jack was doomed to wander the earth with only a coal from Hell’s fires to light his way.
Jack placed the coal inside of a hollowed out turnip, using it as a lantern, and began his endless search to find a resting place; earning himself the name Jack of the Lantern or Jack-O-Lantern.
Soon people began to make their own version of Jack’s lantern by carving hideous faces into turnips; then placing them at the door to their homes to ward off Stingy Jack and other evil spirits.
Jack-O-Lanterns were also used to guide revellers home during the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which took place between October 31st and November 1st. Samhain marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter – the darker half of the year.
At Samhain, it was believed that spirits and other entities could travel more easily between worlds so folks avoided walking home in the darkness; instead using the light of a Jack-O-Lantern to guide them and frighten away malevolent entities.
When Irish immigrants came to America in the 1800s to escape the famine, they brought the tradition with them. However, since turnips were hard to come by and instead using the more widely available pumpkin, which are native to North America.
And pumpkin Jack-O-Lanterns have been used ever since.