If there is one icon that is associated with Halloween more than any other, it’s the pumpkin with the sinister grin — the jack o’ lantern. All of the other symbols have lives outside of October 31st. Vampires. Witches. Black cats. Skeletons. You can’t say that about the carved orange gourd. If you see it at any point during the year, it immediately and unequivocally shouts “Halloween!”
According to experts, humans have been carving gourds for thousands of years. In this particular case, the tradition we now see during Halloween has its immediate origins in Ireland, and to a lesser degree its Scottish and English neighbors. As the Irish diaspora spread across the globe during the Nineteenth Century, they brought the idea of the jack o’ lantern with them, only they used turnips and mangel wurzels, rather than pumpkins.
Halloween had its origins in the harvest festival Samhain. Both were seen as a time when supernatural beings and the souls of the dead walked to the earth. By carving scary faces onto the turnip, it was believed to ward off evil spirits. The rationales for taking this action is well-defined in various folk-tales regarding will-o’-the-wisps and jack-o’-lanterns. According to the stories, a character named Will or Jack is doomed to haunt the marshes as punishment for some misdeed they committed. As they wander the Earth, they carry a small light to show them the way.
While there are variation to the jack-o’-lantern tale, the story commonly called Stingy Jack is considered the origin of the Halloween practice. In the tale, Jack is always getting into trouble and causing grief for people around him. When the Devil comes to take his soul, Jack tricks him into turning into a coin so that he can pay for his last drink on Earth. Once the Devil changes shape, Jack sticks the coin into his pocket alongside a crucifix. In the presence of the Cross, the Devil is helpless and unable to escape. Satan bargains for his freedom, granting Jack ten more years of life.
When the decade is over, Satan returns once again for Jack’s soul and is once again tricked into helplessness. In exchange for his freedom, the Devil essentially promises not to take Jack’s soul. However, it’s the Devil who gets the last laugh this time. Since Jack has committed too many sins to earn entrance into Heaven, he casts down to Hell. However, the Devil gets his due and refuses Jack entry. With nowhere left to go, Jack is left to wander the Earth for eternity. The Devil does not send Jack away empty-handed, however. He gives him an ember from the fires of Hell so that he can use it as he plods through the world of lost souls. Jack carves a turnip into a lantern in order to hold the morsel of hellfire the Devil gave him.
And that’s how the modern day jack-o’-lantern came to be.