When people think of jack-o’-lanterns, they usually think of bright orange pumpkins, lit by candles that shine out of cleverly carved faces. It may come as a surprise that the term “jack-o’-lantern” was first used to describe people.
In the 1600s, “jack-o’-lantern” was a name given by the Irish to a night watchman (usually a man with a lamp). The term eventually evolved to become a nickname for the gaseous flames that were often seen floating over swamps and marshes. Before people knew that the lights were caused by the ignition of decomposing plant matter, they created plenty of eerie stories to explain the lights’ origin.
One of the earliest legends is the tale of a man named “Stingy Jack,” who stiffed the devil on a bar tab, and not learning his lesson, tricked him again into getting stuck in a tree. When Jack freed the devil from the tree, he made him swear not to take his soul in the afterlife. When Stingy Jack died, he was turned away from Heaven, and the devil, true to his word, also turned him away from Hell. Legend has it that the devil sent Jack on his way with one burning piece of coal in a turnip to light his way through the afterlife. He has been haunting the swamps and marshes ever since as “Jack of the Lantern” or “Jack O’ Lantern.”
As the Irish came to the new world, they brought the legend with them by making vegetable lanterns to celebrate the harvest. Children would play tricks on passers-by, shining their carved vegetable lamps and pretending to be “Stingy Jack.” Eventually, they started carving faces into pumpkins, which were plentiful at the time, and the pumpkin form of the “jack-o’-lantern” was born. Today, thousands of carved pumpkins grace patios and steps all around the world on Halloween, but few know their true origin story or the legend of “Stingy Jack.”