The tradition of carving pumpkins began in Ireland over 1000 years ago and when you consider the name jack-o-lanterns that's almost too obvious in hindsight, but to understand why the Irish made jack-o-lanterns we must first dive into the past and carve out some lesser known legends...
The Legend Of Stingy Jack
Let me tell you the story of a guy named Stingy Jack. The first version of Stingy Jack's story is the classic version. These stories were told a long time ago prior to the year 800. This is during the time that stories of spirits and witchcraft and supernatural things were at an all time high. As a result fantastical explainations were thought up to explain natural but incredible phenomena. Enter the story of Stingy Jack, he was a liar, a manipulator, a drunk and his soul was so black that Satan himself was jealous. He had no morals and had zero empathy for anyone. When Satan hears of Jacks malicious ways and silver tongue he wants to meet him. So one night Jack is drunkenly staggering his way back home from the bar when up ahead in the middle of the path he sees a weird shape on the ground. Its dark so he gets a little closer to investigate as the mysterious silhouette comes into focus he realizes it's a mutilated corpse with an unsettling look on its face. Jack is looking down at the corpse for a few moments when suddenly its eyes move and lock directly onto his, then its mouth begins to open and a voice comes out claiming to be Satan himself. Just then Jack realizes hes about to be taken to hell so he asks Satan to go back to the bar so he can he can have one last drink and Satan figures whats the worst that could happen so together they go back to the bar and order enough drinks to kill a man. When the devil says its time to go, Jack says the least he can do is pay for his drinks since he is taking him to hell afterall. The requests took Satan off guard but he saw Jacks point, the only problem was he didmt have any money with him so jack says dont worry about it just turn yourself into a silver coin, I'll pay with you and when the bartender's not looking you can just transform back. So Satan agreed and turned himself into a coin only instead of paying Jack put the coin into his pocket next to his silver cross, which meant that the devil was stuck in his coin form. It wasnt until Satan agreed to give stingy Jack another 10 years before collecting his soul that he was released. After 10 more years of hard partying Satan returned and went to Jacks house directly to collect what he was owed.
Jack knew his time was up and went with Satan quietly, just as they started their journey to hell Jack had another request. He asked Satan to please get him an apple from a nearby tree because he was starving. Initally Satan says absolutely not but Jack says "you dont want to hear my stomach rumbling the entire journey do you?" So Satan decides that this would be very annoying and he decides to pick what he believes to be the lesser of of two evils. He then climbs up a nearby tree to get the apple. Jack then surrounds the tree with a bunch of crosses which means that Satan cant get down. Once again Jack blackmails him into agreeing to NEVER collect his soul. Satan agrees to his terms and lets him go. Jack goes on to live another few years counting his way though life until the excessive drinkng killed him and his soul went to heaven. God personally came out of the gates and said there is no way in hell you are gettting in here. Just like that Jacks soul was sent down to Hell where Satan was eagerly waiting. Jack begged him to open the gate so he'd have someplace to go, but the devil said sorry I made a promise to never collect your soul and I always uphold my deals. This meant Jack had nowhere to go and was cursed to spend eternity wandering through the darkness of purgatory "the world between worlds" and the only thing he had to light his way was a parting gift from the devil. A single glowing ember which he carried using a hollowed out turnip. From then on Stingy Jack was given a new name "Jack of the Lantern." Over time that would be shortened to become jack-o-lantern. The legend says that every year on October 31st you can actually see the spirit of Jack and his glowing ember wondering aimlessly through the forests and marshes looking for other souls to join him in his eternal misery.
There is another story of Stingy Jack but its a little more dark and violent, and the tricks he pulls are a little more elaborate. Before we get to far let me tell you about a phenomena called Ignus Fatuus or more commonly known as Ghost Lights. They are atmospheric floating orbs of light that are often seen at night by travelers and people who live out in the country. They are especially common in wooded and swampy areas. The scientific explaination for these lights are that gases being emmited by the marshes are igniting in the air and creating a floating flame effect, but back in the 8th century and earlier people didn't know that so other causes were thought up. One such cause was jack of the lantern. If you looked outside your cottage and saw glowing lights off in the distance that meant Stingy Jack and other spirits like him were out there searching for helpless souls, and believe it or not some people actually fell victim to these lights. Weary travelers would often mistake them for torches from a town up ahead and they were so desperate for shelter that they would end up walking straight into a bog and drowning.
If you are a Lord of the Rings fan its similar to the scene where Sam, Frodo and Gollum were walking through the dead marshs and Frodo is so entranced by the lights that he almost drowns. Then Gollum tells Frodo to not follow the lights!! Did Tolkien take some inspiration from these old legends? To keep the spirits away from them people in both Ireland and Scotland would make their own versions of Jack's lantern by carving sacry faces into turnips and placing them near windows to frighten the evil spirits away.
The Celtic festival of Samhain took place on November 1st, it was believed that on Samhain Eve October 31st the spirits of the dead would return and walk amoung the living hence the need for protection. In addition to the face carvings people would also put on masks and scary costumes when going outside so that they could blend in with the evil spirits. Samhain and what we know of as Halloween today have a lot in common, from jack-o-lanterns, masks and dressing up or the association with death and magic all beginning on October 31st. This is all due in part to a certain amount of Christian influence on Ireland, and Samhain would eventually become known as Halloween. Whenever Christians moved into predominantly Pagan countries they wouldnt try rid their beliefs and practices completely, rather they would aabsorb elements from them and make them their own. This made it a lot easier to get the people native to these Pagan lands easier to convert to Christianity.
An example of this was in the year 609 when the Christians invented a new holiday called "All Saints Day" to honor the saints and placed it on May 13th the same day as Lemuria. A Roman Pagan festival where unwanted spirits were banished from people's homes. Due to the added pressure of Chrisitan rulers like Emperor Theodosius putting laws into place that ordered the celebration of Christian holidays and outlawed Pagan ones. Roman citizens had no choice but to give up their old beliefs once and for all. When the Chrisitans realized their plan to get rid of Lemuria was successful they wanted to do the same thing to Samhain in Ireland. So sometime before the 8th century they moved All Saints Day to November 1st and called it All Hallows Day, and called the day before October 31st Hallows Eve and that eventually became Halloween.
However it wasnt until Irish immigrants started coming to America in the 1840's that they brought with them their traditions of the jack-o-lantern. It was only then then that the jack-o-lantern took its final form that we know of today. When the Irish came to America they found that pumpkins, a fruit they never knew existed because it was exclusive to the western hemisphere made even better jack-o-lanterns than turnips. While we may carve jack-o-lanterns for different reasons today mostly for fun and not self defense its still a great tradition.
Jack O' the Lantern
This version of Stingy Jack was published in a penny dreadful called the Dublin Penny Journal on January 16th 1936. Penny Dreadfuls were magazines about a dozen pages long that told stories of criminals, detectives and supernatural entities. Topics that are still very popular even today, especially in podcast and documentary formats. The reason for their name was because they only cost a penny, but the cheap entertainment did not mean it was low quality. Legendary characters like Sweeney Todd and Sexton Blake were were both born from penny dreadfuls.
This particular story was called Jack O' the Lantern was written by an unknown author whose initials were EW and it starts out similar to every other Stingy Jack story. We are introduced to Jack while hes drunkenly stumbling home from a watering hole he frequents, he discovers very concerning scene. While crossing a bridge that was associated with tales of murder and susperstition he hears a voice cry out "for the love of heaven, take me to some human habitation, for I am no tortured spirit but an poor homeless wanderer who has lost my was on the wild moor, and have lain down here to die, for 1 durst not cross the rapid water, So may mercy be shown to you in your hour of need and the day of your distress." At first Jack thought this was a trick being played by some demon but when he finds the courage to folloe the voice and found a battered and bruised wanderer dying, he was so so relieved that it wasnt an evil that he actually humanized the poor guy. For maybe the first time in his life Stingy Jack wanted to do some good, so he threw the wanderer onto his horse and brought him to his house. Naturally Jacks wife was suprised to see her husband bringing in someone who needed their help, but she was excited for the company and together cleaned the old wanderer up and gave him some new clothes and some food and a warm bed. They then went to sleep as well, the next morning Jack woke up to a bright light where the wanderer once stood and there was an angel in his place, and to pay Jack for his generosity he offered to bless his household and grant him any three wishes he wanted. So Jack wishes that anyone who touches his Sycamore tree in the front yard become stuck to it until he releases them, and for the same rule to apply to his favorite chair and yet again the rule to apply to his toolbox. After hearing these wishes that were all motivated by petty revenge the angel lets out a loud sigh and granted them. The poweres in heaven however had decided right then that Jack would would never be allowed in, he had the oppertunity to was for so much good but instead chose to punish those who wronged him. The angel's blessing did stay on his house, he had many children and every harvest was bountiful.
20 years later a demon came to collect Jacks soul but as we know at this point Jack doesnt do anything he doesn't want to do. So he told the demon to have a seat in his favorite chair while he left to go put on his Sunday best, then when the demon finds he cant get up, Jack returns with a flail and uses it to beat the demon until every bone in his body was broken and its begging for mercy. Jack says he will only let the demon go if he promises to leave him alone an the demon has no choice but to agree so he can return back to hell. When Satan finds out that one of his best messengers was bloodied and broken, he sends an even more vicious demon in its place. When the new demon shows up the next day Jack says fine I'll come with you, but if we are going to walk the road to hell you have got to let me fix my shoe. Hand me that mallet from my toolbox and when the demon grabs it, it ends up stuck to the toolbox which is stuck to the wall. Once again Jack beats the demon with no mercy breaking every bone and with a final snap and split of the demons flesh he releases the demon and it returns to hell. On the third day Satan decides against sending another demon and takes it upon himself to collect Jack. Satan shows up outside his door and says its time to get going, but Jack insists that he cant make the trip without his walking stick. Of course Satan tries arguing with him saying its not necessary but Jack isnt afraid to make himself look really pathetic to get what he wants, so Satan walks over to the Sycamore tree to break off a stick and he gets stuck to it. Jack jumps for joy because he just outsmarted Satan. He runs inside grabs his favorite flail plus two more and proceeds to break all of them over Satans head while hes begging for mercy then Jack makes a deal with Satan, he agrees to let him go if he promises he wont ever come back or send anymore demons to collect him. Satan agrees but Jack may have thought he outsmarted Satan and his demons what he doesnt realize is that death itself is a part of nature so he couldnt defend himself from its assault. Once Jacks soul shows up at the gates of hell they wouldnt open and Satan actually runs and hides from Jack so he wouldnt see him, and heaven laughs in his face when he tries to get in. So being unfit for either that meant Jack was cursed to spend eternity in purgatory walking the earth shrouded in darkness with nothing but a glowing ember and a hollowed out husk to light his way.