The Story of Stingy Jack: Jack O’Lantern
Oh, the Jack O’ Lantern! We all know it very well and get overly excited for that time of the year when we can exert all of our frustrations by piercing the sharp end of a knife through the soft flesh of a pumpkin and carving ourselves a good ol’ face. But, who is this Jack? When I was a kid, I remember reading a very brief story concerning the famed Jack who had a hollow pumpkin named after him. Certainly he must have been a very scary person to have been honored with being named after something that makes several appearances on a night of ghouls and goblins, Halloween. The story, according to a child’s version of Encyclopedia Britannica, stated that Jack was an Irish man who once roamed the earth as a prankster and drunkard. When he died, he was refused access through the gates of Heaven for his malice and cunning ways. The Devil did not even allow him to enter Hell for having been himself a victim of Jack’s treachery and pranks. Being denied of both Heaven and Hell, Jack was left to roam the earth in darkness with his lantern so that it may light his path.
It wasn’t until years later with the advent of the personal computer (PC) that I was able to dig a little deeper into the origin of the Jack O’ Lantern. Although there are many variations of the story, the similarities between these tales are pretty common. The term Jack O’ Lantern or “Jack of the Lantern” first appeared in print in 1750 and referred to a night watchman or a man carrying a lantern. Before appearing on print, the term was used to describe a strange light flickering over the swamps of Ireland. Whenever an attempt was made at approaching this light, it seemed to move further away and was always out of reach. The mysterious occurrence is also known as will o’ the wisp and ignis fatuus, Gaelic for foolish fire. A turnip was also used prior to the infamous carved pumpkin. Because of the Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800′s in Ireland, country-folk immigrated to the Americas where pumpkins were more readily available than turnips as well as easier to carve into. Along with the Irish, came their beliefs, traditions and folklore as well as their use of the Jack O’ Lantern. The renowned term reaches far back into Irish folklore with a story of a drunkard named Stingy Jack.
One Halloween night, Jack, who was an Irish blacksmith, was found where he usually frequented; the local pub. He was known to be a heavy drinker and this night was no exception. Halloween would be the night that Satan would come to collect Jack’s soul. Soon enough, the Devil entered the pub. He engaged in mild conversation with Jack before revealing to him the nature of his visit. Jack asked to finish his drink before taking his life and the Devil agreed. Using this opportunity to stall, Jack used his cleverness and wit and challenged the Devil into proving himself. Jack asked the Devil to prove his powers by turning into a coin to pay for his drinks. The Devil scoffed at the child’s play and turned himself into a shiny, gold coin. Jack grabbed the coin and pocketed it into a bag that contained a silver cross (another story says that Jack had a scar in his hands in the shape of a cross that prevented the Devil from transforming back). Rendering the Devil powerless at the mercy of a cross, Jack bargained with the Devil and made him promise to return after a year (10 years in another account) so that Jack may have enough time to repent for his sins and be allowed into heaven. Again, the Devil agreed and left Jack in the pub where he continued to drink.
Another account states that Jack somehow managed to trick the Devil into climbing an apple tree so that he may enjoy the fresh, juicy apples that were at the top. The Devil climbed and when he was near the top Jack carved a cross into the bark of the tree preventing the Devil from climbing back down. Jack seized the moment to bargain with the Devil and removed the carving only after he made the Devil promise to never return for his soul. A deal was made.
There is even one account that combines both stories where the Devil leaves Jack at the pub and returns 10 years later to claim his soul. It is here where Jack prompts the Devil to climb the tree and upon fooling him makes the Devil promise to never take his soul. Years later Jack would die of his own accord and was rejected from the gates of Heaven and, being true his word, the Devil would not take Jack’s soul thus preventing him entrance into Hell.
“But where will I go?” Asked a fearful Jack. Being that it was dark, Jack pleaded with Satan to grant him some light so that he may find his way through the darkness.
The Devil pulled out a lump of coal and ignited it with flames. “To where you came from,” the Devil responded.
He tossed it to Jack where he placed it inside a turnip he was eating and made the lonely journey away from the gates of Hell and into the darkness.
In the end, it is the Devil who had the last laugh in both accounts. Jack was doomed to roam the earth for all eternity. It is this spirit of Stingy Jack that the people of Ireland have dubbed Jack O’ Lantern. It is believed that spirits were free to roam the Earth on Halloween and the tradition of leaving food and snacks near their doors and windows to appease the spirits and restless souls began. The tradition of carving scary faces into pumpkins also stemmed from those not wanting to be visited by Stingy Jack and other ghosts, hoping that the ghastly faces carved would frighten them away.
So, this Halloween don’t forget to light up your Jack O’ Lantern and place it near your door or window, or else you’ll be getting a late night visitor from your trusty pal Stingy Jack!