Halloween Traditions – Jack-o-Lanterns

Jack-o-lanterns are a key symbol of modern Halloween. You know it’s spooky season when you start seeing orange pumpkins with wide grins carved into them sitting next to people’s doors. Like Halloween costumes, Jack-o-lanterns are another Halloween tradition that finds its origins in Samhain. Since the pumpkins we use today are not native to Europe, the pagans who celebrated Samhain originally used turnips and other root vegetables. Like costumes, they were another type of protection against malicious spirits.

We get the name “Jack-o-lantern” from the Irish folk story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack earned his name by conning the devil. He’d had a drink or two with Old Scratch himself and decided he didn’t want to pay, so he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin with which to pay. Instead of paying with the coin the devil became, Stingy Jack pocketed the devil along with a silver cross, which prevented the devil from escaping.

The drinks went unpaid for, I assume.

Stingy Jack eventually let the devil go, under two conditions: that the devil would not bother Jack for one year and that the devil would not take Jack’s soul after he died. After that year had passed, Jack conned the devil again by getting him to climb a tree for a piece of fruit. Once the devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark and wouldn’t let the devil down until he promised to leave Jack alone for another ten years.

After Jack died, God refused Jack entry into Heaven due to his unsavory character. In a brilliant display of malicious compliance, the devil wouldn’t take him either. Jack was left to wander, though the devil did show Jack mercy by giving him a burning coal to light his way. Stingy Jack put the coal in a carved out turnip and continued his ornery ways by leading travelers off their path and getting them lost.

An older version of the story might be a demon that originates in Brittany, Yan-Gant-Y-Tan. Yan-Gant-Y-Tan can be found in occultist Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, and his MO sounds remarkably like Stingy Jack’s. Yan-Gant-Y-Tan is known to roam the countryside carrying candles on his fingers. The demon has also been associated with will-o’-the-wisps, which are also known to lead travelers astray.

Metal lanterns were too expensive for most ordinary folks in the long, long ago, and of course they didn’t have the light bulbs we use now. People had to get creative, so they carved out root vegetables to combat the antics of Stingy Jack and Yan-Gant-Y-Tan. When those who observed the old Samhain traditions started to immigrate to North America, they started using our bright orange pumpkins for their Jack-o-lanterns which are much easier to carve. Though there are some trying to revive the traditional carved turnips, most people today use pumpkins. Those pumpkin Jack-o-lanterns are now iconic symbols of Halloween.


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