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History of the Jack O' Lantern

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A jack-o'-lantern, sometimes also spelled Jack O'Lantern, is a pumpkin whose top and stem have been cut out and interior removed, leaving a hollow shell that is then decoratively carved. Jack-o'-lanterns are associated with the holiday Halloween. The term is not particularly common outside North America.

An old Irish legend tells of Jack, a lazy yet shrewd farmer who uses a cross to trap the Devil. One story says that Jack tricked the Devil into climbing an apple tree, and once he was up there Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark, so that the Devil couldn't get down. Another myth says that Jack put a key in the Devil's pocket while he was suspended upside-down; Another myth says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers whom he had stolen from, when he met the Devil: it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (the Devil could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin/Devil disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it.

The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack's wallet... only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped. In both myths, Jack only lets the Devil go when he agrees never to take his soul. After a while the thief died, as all living things do. Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, the Devil had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from Hell as well. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember that would never burn out from the flames of hell. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which was his favourite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as "Jack of the Lantern", or Jack-o'-Lantern.


There are variations on the legend:

  • Some versions include a "wise and good man", or even God helping Jack to prevail over the Devil.
  • There are different versions of Jack's bargain with the Devil. Some variations say the deal was only temporary but the Devil, embarrassed and vengeful, refuses Jack entry to hell after Jack dies.
  • Jack is considered a greedy man and is not allowed into either heaven or hell, without any mention of the Devil.

Despite the colorful legends, the term jack-o'-lantern originally meant a night watchman, or man with a lantern, with the earliest known use in the mid-17th century; and later, meaning an ignis fatuus or will-o'-the-wisp. The names "Jacky Lantern" and "Jack the Lantern" persist in the oral tradition in Newfoundland, referring to the will-o'-the-wisp type phenomena, rather than the carved pumpkin jack-o'-lantern.

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