Did you know that the Halloween Jack O'Lantern has Irish origins?
These beloved symbols of Halloween are carved throughout the United States and Canada each and every year, but their roots are firmly Irish.
Were you aware this annual Halloween custom is a tradition brought to America by Irish immigrants in the 19th century?
Table of Contents
- Celebrate Your Irish Heritage by Carving a Pumpkin
- What is a Jack-o-lantern?
- Samhain - The Celtic Festival And Lanterns
- 17th Century Jack O'Lantern's in Britain
- Lantern Carving Competitions In Days Gone By
- The Legend of Stingy Jack and the Jack O'Lantern
- Stingy Jack and Fairy Lights
- Lantern Lighting On Halloween
- Pumpkins in American Literature
- Carving Pumpkins with Pride in Your Heritage
Celebrate Your Irish Heritage by Carving a Pumpkin
Did you know that when you carve out a pumpkin to create your very own masterpiece, you are continuing an ancient Irish tradition and celebrating your Irish heritage?
And so, let's explore the history and origins of this family tradition, and learn why pumpkin carving is primarily a Halloween tradition.
Plus, we'll discover the legend of Ireland's Stingy Jack. Unfortunately he is probably still roaming the earth with nothing but his original hollowed out turnip lantern to light his way.
What is a Jack-o-lantern?
Jack-o-lanterns are root vegetable lanterns made by scooping out the insides of a pumpkin or rutabaga. Next the outer side is carved with a face or Halloween design. The lantern is lit up with a candle or electric light.
And so, let's explore the custom of making jack-o-lanterns at Halloween time, which originated in Ireland.
The Irish did not have pumpkins in 19th century Ireland. Growing pumpkins on the Emerald Isle is only a recent phenomenon.
Hundreds of years ago it was the rutabaga, also called a swede or turnip or mangel in Ireland, that was chosen to create these special lights. Sometimes large potatoes were used. And in Britain, beets were used to carve out lanterns.
Samhain - The Celtic Festival And Lanterns
Samhain was the ancient Celtic festival that evolved to become our current day Halloween. This was a time when supernatural beings were said to roam the earth.
The veil between the spiritual and earthly domains was believed to be thinnest at this time of year and spirits and the souls of the dead were thought to walk the earth on All Hallows' Eve.
Lanterns were carved out by the Irish to provide light throughout this night, and to protect them from evil spirits.
They lit them up by placing a glowing ember from a turf fire inside the carved turnip shell. The lanterns were set on windowsills warning doomed spirits to steer clear of a home.
Some people believe faces were carved into the lanterns to represent souls in purgatory.
17th Century Jack O'Lantern's in Britain
The use of the term jack-o’-lantern is not limited to the description of a carved out vegetable. In 17th-century Britain the name Jack was used to name anyone whose name you might not know.
A night watchman might be called Jack-of-the-Lantern since he would carry an oil lamp or lantern to light his way.
Lantern Carving Competitions In Days Gone By
Competitions were held for the best Jack O'Lanterns in 19th century Ireland. A report in the Limerick Chronicle from 1837 is evidence of the tradition of carving gourds to make lanterns.
A Limerick pub held a carved gourd competition and presented a prize to the best Jack McLantern.
Also, in 1835, the Dublin Penny Journal published an article for Halloween all about the legend of the "Jack-o'-the-Lantern."
The Legend of Stingy Jack and the Jack O'Lantern
Carving Jack O'Lanterns at Halloween has its origins in Irish myth.
The legendary reason for all this turnip or pumpkin carving centered around a notoriously mean character called Stingy Jack.
His legend has been handed down for generations in Irish folklore. There are many versions of the tale of Stingy Jack, but here’s my favorite.
Stingy Jack - a Trickster
Jack was a bit of a joker. He loved playing tricks and one day he made a serious mistake. He decided to play a trick on the Devil himself.
Using his guile and gift of the gab, he managed to convince the Devil to climb into an apple tree.
When the Devil wasn’t paying attention, Jack placed crosses around the tree trunk, stranding the Devil in the tree.
Now, the Devil wouldn't leave the tree when he was surrounded by so many crosses, the symbol of Christ.
But for some crazy reason, Jack did the unthinkable. He made a deal with the Devil. Before removing the crosses to free the Devil, Jack made Old Nick Himself promise not to touch his soul when he passed away.
Stingy Jack - a Man with No Remorse
Now, Jack did not bother to mend his ways and live a good life. After some time, he believed he had secured his heavenly future since he need not worry about going to Hell.
Decades later, Jack passed to the other side and headed off to the gates of Heaven.
However, Stingy Jack’s selfish and mean reputation preceded him. Saint Peter denied him entry to Heaven.
As a result, Stingy Jack headed toward Hell but being true to his promise, the Devil wouldn’t let Stingy Jack enter.
Jack was stranded between Heaven and Hell and in a very dark place.
Eventually, he asked the Devil for some light, and the Devil threw him a burning coal. Jack placed the coal inside a carved out turnip and has been roaming the highways and byways of Ireland, and even the world, ever since, and for all eternity.
As time went by, the Irish called this ghostly figure “Jack of the Lantern” or "Jack of the Turnip." Over the years, this has been shortened to “Jack O’Lantern.”
Perhaps, the O'Lantern name is a shout out to the Irish origins of this tradition, since so many Irish names begin with O'Something-or-other.
In Scotland this lantern carving was also practiced. Turmips, rutabagas or potatoes were used for these Jack MacLanterns.
Stingy Jack and Fairy Lights
Ireland is home to many peat bogs and marshlands. Flickering lights often appear over these bogs at night.
This is a natural phenomenon known officially as ignis fatuus. Gases produced by decomposing organic matter can catch fire. When these gases alight, flickering lights are produced.
In years gone by when Irish people would see these naturally occurring lights, they believed it was Stingy Jack wandering around the countryside.
Many names arose for these lights incuding fool's fire, will-o'-the-wisp, and fairy lights. These floating flames were eventually called jack-o'-lantern lights.
The Irish were a superstitious race, and people avoided following these wispy lights for fear of sinking into a bog hole or the marshes. Nobody wanted to follow Stingy Jack's lost soul or ghost.
These tales began to die out with the introduction of electric lighting in Ireland.
Lantern Lighting On Halloween
On All Hallow’s Eve Irish tradition was to light Jack O’Lanterns to keep Stingy Jack away. Turnips, rutabagas, beets and potatoes were hallowed out to hold burning embers and light up the night.
When Irish immigrants came to American shores throughout the 1800’s, they brought their jack o'lantern, rutabaga carving ways with them. Now rutabagas are not easy to carve. For anyone who likes to eat rutabaga as a side you know how difficult it is to peel and cut a rutabaga.
The Irish in America soon discovered the larger and and easier to carve pumpkin and got busy making their Jack O’Lanterns for Halloween.
This Irish tradition of carving pumpkins continues to this very day throughout the United States.
Pumpkins in American Literature
By 1835 the tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns had taken hold in the USA. In a short story called "The Great Carbuncle" published by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1835, he referenced a carved pumpkin.
The same author published a story called "Feathertop" in 1852 featuring a scarecrow with a carved pumpkin head.
In 1867, Harper's Weekly published an image of a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern, which may have been the first illustration of this new art form in America.
Washington Irving’s book, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,”was first published in 1820 and then again republished in 1858.
In the climax of this famous American tale, the Headless Horseman chucks an uncarved pupkin at Ichabod Crane, who disappears forever. The next morning only Icabod's hat and a shattered pumpkin are found.
Although the novel refers to an uncarved pumpkin, modern day images of the Headless Horseman show him carrying a fiery red jack-o-lantern. This story has grown to be a favorite American tale at Halloween.
Carving Pumpkins with Pride in Your Heritage
And so, as you carve your pumpkin this year, remember you are practicing a little bit of your Irish heritage.
I hope Jack O'Lanterns will be an integral part of halloween festivities and your halloween decor this year.
Wishing everyone a very happy Halloween, and may all your jack o'lanterns shine brightly this All Hallow's Eve.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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Well, that tale is a good one for warning anyone being foolish enough to make a deal with the Devil! 🙂 It reminds me of a very old movie titled "On Borrowed Time", and I wonder if it was inspired by this ancient story. However, in the movie it's the Devil who gets the worst of the bargain, and it's funny in parts, but also poignant at the end.
Irish American Mom
Hi Lynn - Old Irish legends are full of good warnings for young and old. Once again, you have mentioned a movie I have not seen, so I can't add my two cents worth about whether or not it was inspired by this old Irish tale. It's nice to think it might have been.
Thanks for stopping by.
I am behind on posts but I made sure to read this one, gosh I love these old tales! Samhain is such a unique time of year. Happy Halloween Mairead!
Irish American Mom
Hi Bernadette - I hope you had a lovely Halloween. Thanks for stopping by to check out my ramblings about Halloween, and its Irish origins.
All the best,