Why Carved Pumpkins are Called Jack-o’-Lanterns: An Irish Legend

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It just wouldn’t be Halloween without those carved pumpkins. Some grin and others scowl, but the flickering candles within give their expressions a ghostly glow. We call them jack-o’-lanterns, and if you’ve ever wondered where this strange name comes from, here is an Irish legend that will explain it all…

Ungenerous Jack

It all started with an Irish man named Jack. He was a stingy sort, and felt no need to share what he had with anyone. One night when he was going home, past the bogs, he heard a groaning in the darkness. He was shaking in his boots because he thought it was a wandering spirit. Then the voice reassured him that it was just a lost traveler – sick, cold and nearly dead. Jack was so relieved that he forgot himself, picked up the poor old man, and took him home.

He fed the stranger and put him to bed. Then in the wee hours of the morning, Jack was awakened by a bright light that filled his entire house. He jumped out of bed and found himself face to face with a young man dressed in white and sporting white feathered wings. It was an angel.

The angel said, “We’ve heard so many bad reports about you, Jack. Everyone says that you are unkind and inhospitable. So I came disguised as a poor old man and I discovered that there’s still a bit of kindness hidden in your heart. As a reward for showing me hospitality, your house will be blessed… And I will grant you three wishes. Make sure you choose them wisely.”

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Jack’s Three Wishes

Jack thought for a moment, then made his first wish. “I have a beautiful sycamore tree in front of my house, but everyone who passes by wants to break off a branch. I wish that the hand of anyone who touches the tree with that intention would stick to the tree until I would release him.

Secondly, I wish that anyone who sits in my favorite chair would not be able to get up and the chair could not be moved until I would give permission.

Thirdly, I have a box on the wall where I keep the tools I use to mend my shoes. Every time I turn by back, someone is using them. My third wish is that anyone who puts his hand into that box will not be able to remove it and the box will not come loose from the wall, until I say so. And those are my three wishes.” Jack was quite satisfied that he had used his wishes wisely to catch those who tried to take what belonged to him.

The angel shook his head sadly and granted Jack’s requests. Then he informed Jack that he would be excluded from heaven because he had not learned his lesson of compassion. However, the angel’s blessing on his home stood and Jack’s crops and livestock prospered. “Ungenerous Jack” became a rich man.

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Jack’s Wishes Come in Handy

About 20 years later, Jack was sitting in his favorite chair when a figure appeared before him. He was dark, with horns and a long tail. He announced, “My master, Satan, wishes to meet you. You are to come with me.”

Jack looked at the demon and said, “I’ll happily go with you, but I just want to change into my best clothes. Have a seat in my chair and have a bite to eat while I go change.”

The demon sat in Jack’s chair and when he tried to get up he couldn’t. Jack started beating him with a heavy wooden stick and wouldn’t stop until the demon promised never to return.

The next evening, another demon arrived on the same mission – to take Jack to meet the Devil. Jack told his visitor, “I’ll be happy to go with you, just as soon as I mend my shoe. It’s coming apart and it will slow down our journey unless I repair it. Why don’t you have a seat while I fix it?”

But the second demon had already heard about the chair trick so he declined. Jack calmly sat in the chair and took off his shoe. “Would you mind handing me my tools from that box on the wall?” he asked the demon.

Demon number two complied and then couldn’t remove his hand from the box. Jack again brought out his stick and beat the demon until he too, promised never to return.

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Down in the underworld, the Devil had heard these stories about Jack and decided to go himself to Jack’s house. But knowing Jack’s reputation, he wouldn’t enter the house. He demanded that Jack come out and go with him.

Jack said, “Of course, I’ll willingly go with you. Just let me go inside to get my cane.”

Satan refused this request, thinking he had more tricks inside the house. “Ok,” Jack said, “it’s just that my bones are so old, that I’m afraid I won’t get very far without some support and it won’t be long until you’ll have to carry me… If I just had even a branch of that sycamore tree to lean on, I think I could make it.”

Satan, not wanting to carry the old man, went over to break a branch off Jack’s tree. Of course, he was stuck there and Jack started beating him as he had beaten the demons before him. Finally the Devil could take no more and promised never to come back for Jack and to never permit Jack’s descent into hell.

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Jack and his Lantern

Well, Jack eventually died, as all men do. But his soul was unfit for heaven and he was banned from hell. He was forced to wander the bogs of Ireland with a lantern that he carved from a turnip. And the eerie light seen over the bogs was supposed to be Jack with his flickering lantern – Jack with the lantern – or jack-o’-lantern.

In Ireland the jack-o’-lanterns were carved from turnips or other vegetables. Some think the Irish immigrants took the jack-o’-lantern tradition to the United States where turnips gave way to the now-popular pumpkins.

*This story is adapted from the Dublin Penny Journal 1835

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Margo Lestz

Margo has authored four books about France. She has a BA in Liberal Studies with International Emphasis and enjoys travel, languages, history, writing, and experiencing other cultures.

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