I didn’t know that these carved pumpkin heads that appear at Halloween are known as ‘jack-o’-lanterns.’ Apparently the name comes from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.”
According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him, but true to his name, he didn’t pay. Somehow he convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin so that he could use the coin to pay for their drinks. The Devil was an accommodating chap and agreed to transform into the coin, but as soon as he did Jack had a change of heart about paying for the drinks. Instead he put the devil coin in his pocket.
In Jack’s pocket the coin was next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul.
It’s not entirely clear what Jack was doing hanging out with the Devil so much, but a year later he again tricked the Lord of darkness into climbing up a tree to pick a piece of fruit. Again, the Devil seemed overly accommodating and not particularly smart because Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down. Negotiating his release from the tree Jack made the simpleton Devil promise not to bother him for ten more years.
Not long after taunting the Devil Jack died. As the legend goes, God wouldn’t allow Jack into heaven because he had a strict policy about not allowing ‘unsavoury characters’ into heaven*. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. Instead, he sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way.
Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip, which has since become a pumpkin, and has been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.
* Following pressure from the catholic authorities, God relaxed his admissions policy for heaven, and now all manner of unsavoury characters can be found there.
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