Jack of the Lantern and Stingy Jack

by Cie McCullough Buschle on October 28, 2010

in Arts and Culture

Jack-o-lantern in a turnipThis week, we’ll be hauling home the biggest, fattest, heaviest pumpkins prior to making an unholy mess carving a Jack O’ Lantern. Imagine how much easier this tradition would be if we carved a smaller, less messy veggie instead.

Jack of the Lantern and Stingy Jack

by Cie McCullough Buschle

In a Jack O’ Lantern, typically the top is cut off a pumpkin, and the inside flesh is then scooped out; an image, usually a monstrous face, is carved onto the outside surface, and the lid replaced. At night a light is placed inside to illuminate the effect. The term is not particularly common outside North America, although the practice of carving lanterns for Halloween is.

Throughout Ireland and Britain, there is a long tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, particularly turnips, beets or potatoes. The large orange squashes didn’t come into prominence until Irish immigrants settled in the United States, where pumpkins were cheaper and more plentiful than turnips.

An old Irish folk tale tells of Stingy Jack, a lazy yet shrewd farmer who uses all sorts of tricks on the Devil. In all the stories Jack only lets the Devil go if he promises never to take his soul. When Jack dies, the Devil can’t take him, but Jack is too sinful for Heaven to let him in. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see, as he had no light, and the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of hell that would never burn out. Jack carved out a turnip, which was his favorite food, put the ember inside, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place.

Traditional Jack O’Lanterns, hollowed-out turnips with embers or candles inside, became a very popular Halloween decoration in Ireland and Scotland a few hundred years ago. Folk tradition held that they would ward off Stingy Jack and other spirits on Halloween, and they also served as representations of the souls of the dead.

Not until 1837 does the Jack O’Lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern, and the carved lantern does not become associated with Halloween until 1866. This was not in the Great Britain or Ireland, however, but in North America.


| Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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