If you ask anyone what's the first thing they think of when they hear the word "Halloween" then odds are that Jack O'Lanterns will probably be pretty high on the list. These iconic decorations are part of the Halloween traditions and carving them is one of the highlights of the season. But where did they first come from?
Most of the traditions have sinister implications behind them. The costumes and candies and tributes offered are a way to appease or dispel the attentions of evil spirits. Well, the Jack O' Lanterns have a great ghost story behind their origins, an Irish tale of a con man who tricked the Devil twice, only to suffer for his hubris.
Stingy Jack, also known as Jack the Smith, Drunk Jack, Flaky Jack, and Jack of the Lantern was a gambler, whoremonger, and degenerate whose antics eventually guaranteed his place in Hell. The Devil was said to be in admiration for the depth of Stingy Jack's depravity and decided to collect the man's soul himself.
One night, as Stingy Jack stumbled out of the bars into a cobblestone streets, he found the Devil waiting for him at the crossroads to town. Rather than being terrified, Jack greeted him with a smile. "Before we go to hell, would you come and have a drink with me? That way I can walk through the gates of Perdition knowing that I shared a drink with the Devil himself."
Amused by Stingy Jack's fearlessness, charm, and hubris, the Devil agreed. They found one of the last open bars in the area, where the musicians were still performing and the crowd kept their good cheer. The Devil and Stingy Jack sat at the bar and raised a glass to each other as the band played.
One glass followed another, then another, until even the Devil was feeling merry. Finally the barman asked Stingy Jack for payment for their drinks. Jack smiled and said, "my friend here will be picking up the tab."
The Devil didn't keep any money on hand, but Stingy Jack suggested that the Devil transform into a silver piece, more than enough to pay for both drinks. The Devil, being drunk, agreed. He transformed into a silver coin, which Stingy Jack quickly stuffed into his pocket next to his crucifix.
The coin prevented the Devil from changing his form back so he howled and pleaded to be freed. Clever Stingy Jack said that he would let the Devil go if the Devil agreed to pardon all his old sins and let Stingy Jack restart his life with a clean slate, for Jack was feeling remorseful while drunk. The Devil agreed and departed in a huff while Jack promises to be a better man going forward.
Stingy Jack woke up the next morning with a massive hangover and a clean slate. By the end of that first day he'd stolen money from a church poverty box to pay for a sex worker and a few more pints of beer. By the end of the year, he'd almost equaled the sins that he's previously washed away.
When word reached the Devil that Stingy Jack was due for damnation, he eagerly rose to the mortal world to collect the man who had tricked him. Once again, he caught up with a drunken Jack stumbling out of a bar into a crossroads. Once again, Stingy Jack greeted the Devil amicably and without fear. He offered to get drinks again, but the Devil turned down the offer.
Jack stroked his beard and said, "Well, in that case I am hungry. Before you take me to Perdition's flame, will you fetch me an apple from that tree?"
The Devil obliged, nimbly scrambling up the tree and fetching an apple as bright and sweet as any fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. However, while the Devil is up in the apple tree, Stingy Jack carves crosses at the base of the tree, effectively trapping the Devil up among the apple tree branches like a frightened cat. The Devil begged to be released but Stingy Jack said, "this time, I'll let you free if you agree to never take me to Hell."
The Devil agreed, but there was a twinkle in his eye, as he'd seen the flaw in Stingy Jack's request. Jack carved out the crosses from the tree trunk and the devil slunk back to Hell.
Time went on and Stingy Jack refused to mend his wicked ways until many years later he was killed while trying to slip out of a brothel window to avoid paying his bill. Awakening in front of the obsidian-and-bone gates of Hell, he beheld the end results of a life of sin and trembled.
This time, the Devil met him at the crossroads before the entrance to Hell.
"You already agreed not to take me!" Stingy Jack wailed.
"And I will keep my word," the Devil said. "Hell has no place for you. But your soul is too soiled for Heaven's embrace. Indeed, there is no place to you."
And the Devil took a still-burning ember and put it into a turnip. "This will be your light through the darkness. Now leave my sight."
And with that, Jack took the turnip lantern and began his endless march through the gray and cheerless lands of Purgatory.
And that is the story behind Jack O' Lanterns. So the next time you carve a gourd for your next Halloween party, spare a thought for poor doomed Jack.
You should also keep the lantern lit, so he can find his way through the dark.