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The Legend of Stingy Jack – How Jack o Lanterns Originated

Jack o’ lanterns are one of the main symbols of Halloween, and carving pumpkins is a Halloween tradition which stems from the Irish myth called The Legend of Stingy Jack.

It’s no surprise that the first jack o lanterns hail from Ireland. After all, Halloween is a holiday that originated from Samhain, which made its first literary appearance in Irish texts from the 9th century.

The Legend of Stingy Jack, like most mythology, has a religious component. Throughout the story, Stingy Jack interacts with both the Devil and God, and even plays tricks on the Devil to get the upper hand. 

Keep reading to learn the story, and find out why jack o lanterns have become such an essential part of Halloween celebrations.

Three jack-o'-lanterns sitting on a dock with fog surround them, and a text overlay to the right of them that reads "The Legend of Stingy Jack - learn how jack o lanterns originated in this spooky Halloween tale".

What is The Legend of Stingy Jack?

In modern times, we carve pumpkins to make jack o lanterns, but they haven’t always been made that way. The first jack o lanterns were carved from turnips by a man named Stingy Jack.

Stingy Jack outsmarts the Devil at a bar

According to the Legend of Sting Jack, there was a blacksmith nicknamed Stingy Jack who lived in a village in Ireland. He was a drunkard who had an awful reputation for being mischievous, as well as manipulating and deceiving people.

When Satan heard of Stingy Jack’s devious ways, he came to collect his soul. Stingy Jack, a master of tricks, agreed and asked the Devil to buy him one last drink at his favorite bar.

A red cartoon devil with horns and a tail holding a devil's pitchfork in one hand, and a pint of beer in the other.

The Devil, seeing no harm in the request took him to the bar and they both ordered drinks. Stingy Jack, living up to his name, refused to pay for the drinks and turned to the Devil to pay the bill.

Satan didn’t carry any money, so Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a silver coin to pay the tab and transform back when the bartender turned around. The Devil agreed.

Stingy Jack quickly picked up the Devil in coin form and placed him in his pocket next to a crucifix. Satan was paralyzed by the religious symbol and couldn’t transfigure himself back.

Jack wanted to make a deal with the Devil, who, rendered powerless, relented. They agreed that the devil would not bother Jack or try to take his soul for another ten years.

Stingy Jack traps the Devil in an apple tree

The Legend of Stingy Jack continues ten years later, when Jack’s days were up. The Devil visited him once again to claim his soul.

Jack begged Satan to pick him an apple from a nearby apple tree to fill his belly before the journey to the underworld. Foolishly, the Devil agreed and climbed the tree.

A cartoon apple tree with three apples on the ground and a basket of apples underneath it, with clouds and mountains in the background.

Tricking the Devil again, Jack ran over and carved a cross in the tree, trapping Satan in its branches. The Devil was furious that Stingy Jack had once again outsmarted him.

Jack stated that he would only release Satan from the tree if he agreed never to take his soul to Hell. Unable to escape Jack’s trap, the Devil was forced to agree to the bargain and vow to never claim Jack’s soul.

Stingy Jack wanders the earth for eternity

The Legend of Stingy Jack concludes with Jack’s death. Knowing his soul was free from the Devil, Jack approached the pearly gates of Heaven.

However, when he arrived, Stingy Jack was denied entry by Saint Peter for the way he lived on earth. The patron saint could not let a man into Heaven who was so deceitful, manipulative and sinful.

Two arched doorways in cream brickwork, the one on the left is a doorway to heaven, and the one on the right is a doorway to hell.

When Jack was turned away, he journeyed to Hell to try and gain entry to the Underworld. Upon arrival, the Devil reminded him of the agreement they made when Jack was alive, where the Devil would never let his soul into Hell.

Before Jack left, Satan gave him a parting gift. This gift which was a piece of coal, lit by Hellfire. Jack put this flaming coal into the turnip lantern he carried to light his way.

With no final resting place, Stingy Jack was doomed to wander the earth for eternity with only his turnip lantern to guide his way.

When the Irish people saw Stingy Jack’s ghost wandering the land with his carved turnip torch, they called him “Jack of the Lantern”, which was abbreviated to “Jack o’ Lantern”.

Jack o lantern origin

Halloween is believed to be the time where the veil between the realm of the living and the dead is the thinnest. It is also believed that spirits of the dead gravitate to the living.

This spiritual Halloween belief frightened people and led them to make their own jack o lanterns to ward off Stingy Jack’s wandering spirit, as well as other malevolent spirits.

Cartoon images of six carved turnips with jack o lantern faces to ward off Stingy Jack, as described in the Stingy Jack story.

In Ireland and Scotland they lit carved potatoes and turnips for this purpose. In England, people carved large beets and lit them.

Why do we carve pumpkins on Halloween?

In the mid 1800s, a large number of Irish people immigrated to the United States due to The Great Famine (also referred to as the Irish Potato Famine).

When the Irish immigrants arrived, they brought many traditions, like jack o lantern carving and making corned beef and cabbage, with them.

Since pumpkins were native to the area, and had a larger mass, they were easier to carve. With this discovery, the history of carving pumpkins for Halloween began!

A person's hands holding a carved pumpkin with a jack o lantern face surrounded by leaves, pumpkin seeds and pumpkin pulp.

Even though many people who carve pumpkins for Halloween are unaware of The Legend of Stingy Jack and the history of jack o lanterns, they still decorate their front stoops with lit pumpkins.

This is true for lots of other Halloween traditions too, like bobbing for apples and dressing up for Halloween. Both of which originate from Celtic Pagan rituals.

Jack o lantern meaning 

As mentioned above, when people saw Stingy Jack’s ghost, they referred to his torch carrying visage as Jack-O’-Lantern, which is shortened from Jack of the Lantern.

When he was spotted, it was often at a distance, in bogs, swamps and marshes. In these sightings, only Jack’s flickering torch was visible, appearing as a twinkling light in the distance.

However, the Stingy Jack story isn’t the only legend which gives explanation to these glowing lights.

A dark forest with illuminated will o the wisps (also called ghost lights, spook lights, and orbs) floating around in the space between the trees.

Some myths describe the lights as mischievous spirits or gnomes that lure people deep into bogs and marshes at night. The bogs were dangerous and would often claim the lives of the people they lured in.

In addition to being called Jack-O’-Lanterns, these lights are also referred to as Will o the Wisp, orbs, ghost lights and spook lights. Their Latin name is ignis fattus which translates to mean “foolish fire”.

Will o the wisp

The name Will-o’-the-Wisp, has a similar meaning to Jack-O’-Lantern. The full term translates to “Will of the Wisp”, or “Will of the Torch”. 

A wisp is a bundle of sticks, reeds, hay or straw, bound together and used as a torch. In some stories, Will was the name of the mischievous spirit leading people into danger.

Though there are many supernatural theories and stories to describe these lights, there’s also a more scientific explanation.

Modern science attributes the lights to bioluminescence and chemiluminescence. It results from the oxidation of methane, phosphine, and diphosphane caused by decaying organic matter present in bogs.

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Celebrate the jack o lantern history

If you’d like to carve jack o lanterns this year, we encourage you to do so! Now that you know the origin of jack o lanterns, you’ll be able to think of the Stingy Jack story when you start carving.

A woman's hand holding pumpkin, and she's finishing carving its jack o lantern face.

Whether you want to keep unwanted spirits away, or just to have fun this Halloween, jack o lantern carving is a great activity to incorporate in your Halloween festivities. Try these ideas:

If you still want to incorporate pumpkins in your Halloween decorations but don’t want to carve them, try these no carve pumpkin ideas:

  • Wine cork pumpkin – Do you like wine? Save up your wine corks to make this Halloween pumpkin decor.
  • Scrapbook paper pumpkins – Nothing could be easier than this scrapbook paper pumpkin tutorial. It comes together in minutes!
  • Upcycled pumpkins – This DIY pumpkin craft makes use of items you probably already have around the house, like an old bedsheet and twigs from the yard.
  • Jack o lantern coloring pages – If you have kids, get our 13 free jack o lantern coloring sheets for them to color this year!

If you’ve already made your jack o lantern this year but want to do more pumpkin carving, check out our tutorials to make mini pumpkin planters for succulents and a pumpkin drink holder.

Jack o lantern facts

Learn the fun facts about jack o lanterns below for Halloween! They’d make great trivia to share at your next Halloween party.

A carved jack o lantern sitting in the woods with ghost lights behind it.

  •  As you now know, the jack o lantern originated from the Irish tale The Legend of Stingy Jack.
  • The largest jack o lantern has a circumference of 242 inches (614.7 cm). It was carved into the shape of an eagle and named “Maverick” after Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun, in 2022.
  • The record for the heaviest jack o lantern belongs to Stefano Cutrupi of Tuscany, Italy. It weighed in at 1217.5kg (2684 lbs 2 oz) in 2021.
  • Jack o lanterns can last about a week before rotting once they are carved.
  • The ideal temperature for jack o lanterns is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • In another spooky tale, Sleepy Hollow’s headless horseman is often depicted carrying a flaming jack o lantern.

More historical trivia posts

If you enjoyed learning about the jack o lantern origin in the story of Stingy Jack, be sure to also check out these posts to learn about the history of your favorite things! 

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Jess author photoAbout the author

Since graduating from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Jess has been living and working in Los Angeles, CA. She is a freelance writer, specializing in content related to fashion, food and drink and film industry topics. Find out more about Jess here.

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