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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Share this post about Stingy Jack and the jack o lantern origin with your friends on twitter:
If you enjoyed learning about jack o lantern history don’t forget to share this Stingy Jack legend with your friends. Here’s a tweet to get you started:The Legend of Stingy Jack – How Jack o Lanterns Originated Click To Tweet
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.
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:
- Creative pumpkin carving designs – This list contains ideas for jack o lanterns plus pumpkin carvings featuring animals, witches, ghosts, skeletons, flowers, and more!
- Cat pumpkin carvings – This page has a list of cat pumpkin carving ideas, including a cat jack o lantern! If you love black cats, try making one today.
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!
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.
- 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!
- The cat sìth – This giant spectral cat’s tie to Samhain led to black cats becoming one of symbols of Halloween.
- Thanksgiving – Learn why the pumpkin is one of the main symbols of Thanksgiving, in addition to Halloween!
- The Legend of the Dogwood Tree – Read about another holiday legend rooted in religion that explains the meaning of dogwood flowers and why they are one of the symbols of Easter.
- St. Patrick’s Day – For another holiday with in Irish history, learn about the symbols of St. Patrick’s Day and the colors associated with the holiday, each of which has special meaning.
- Irish coffee origin – Read about this coffee cocktail learn about another Irish invention with a history that involves seaplanes and World War II. Irish coffee even has its own national day!
- Valentine’s Day Cupid – Learn why Cupid, the god of love, is a symbol of Valentine’s Day through his own tale called The Story of Cupid and Psyche.
Pin The Legend of Stingy Jack and the jack o lantern origin for later
Would you like a reminder of this post about the Stingy Jack and the history of jack o lanterns? Just pin this image to one of your Halloween boards on Pinterest so that you can easily find it later.
About 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.
FACT CHECK: Our editorial staff aims to be accurate and fair in all posts. If you see something that doesn’t appear correct, please click here to contact us. Always the Holidays reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.