The Origins of Jack O’Lantern

by Kidman J. Williams

This is it! The time of year when families get together and watch horror movies, buy/make costumes, and carve their pumpkins with fiendish faces to light their porches and hope that no idiotic teenagers destroy them in the street in front of their houses.

Halloween is my favorite time of the year. The streets are filled with kids all looking for that one house giving away full-sized candy bars, so they can brag to their friends the next day at school. Good times.

We all know the basic pagan origins of Halloween. There is the Celtic celebrated Samhain (Gaelic pronunciation “SAH-win”), but do you know the origins of the Jack-o-Lantern itself?

Before Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman threw his deviant faced pumpkin head at Ichabod Crane, there was Stingy Jack. Some of you may have heard the tale, brought to the U.S. during the great Irish immigration during the potato famine. Although the original Jack O’ Lanterns were carved from turnips. In England, much like Kentucky winter roads, they used beets to carve their spooky fire lit frighteners.

I’m going to tell you my rendition of the legendary Stingy Jack.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

In a small village in the northern part of Ireland lived a well-to-do man by the name of Jack O’Connor. Jack was not rich, but he did have money. He was not a man who made a lot, he was a frugal man who did what he could to spend a little.

The villagers nicknamed him Stingy Jack. He was a clever man who could always talk his way into a free drink at the pub. Jack loved to drink. The more he drank, the meaner the jokes were that he played on his neighbors. He was not held in very high regard by the town folk.

Every evening Stingy Jack would go to the same pub. He would hustle and lie his way into free whiskey. He especially enjoyed being mean to children. One time a child approached Jack asking if he could spare some money so that he and his little sister could afford bread. Jack was not a man that would just say no to them. He wanted to humiliate them for his own pleasure.

Jack took the two young children to the bakery in the village. He looked down at the children and he put his finger to his mouth and with a long whispering ssshhhh, he waited for the baker to turn his back. Jack quickly took the bread and handed it to the young boy. As the boy thanked him and began to walk out the door with his sister, Jack yelled, “Stop thieves!”

The baker turned quick and ran to the children who stopped in their tracks confused. The baker grabbed both children and Jack took the bread and acted as though he was putting it back on the counter, only to stuff it under his coat and walk out the door undetected.

That night in the pub, Stingy Jack was telling the story to a fellow patron. “You should have seen the look on that boy’s face when he saw me pocket that bread and walk off.”

A man at the next table was playing cards and overheard Jack’s story. He turned around and stared Jack into the eyes. Jack could see the flames in the stranger’s dark eyes. The man said to Jack, “I have heard of your deeds Stingy Jack. Do you know who I am?”

Jack gave him a crooked smile, “I know who you are. What do you want with me?”

Satan chuckled, “Then you already know that I am here to collect on your soul.”

Jack looked at Satan, then turned his attention to the bar and said, “I understand what you want and why you want it. But how’s about a last drink in my favorite pub? One last night of drink. What do you say?”

Satan agreed to the terms. The two drank together until closing. What Satan didn’t realize was that Jack had been putting the drinks on Satan’s tab all night. Satan of course didn’t have money and Jack even glaring at death didn’t want to pay. Jack leaned over to Satan and said to him, “Why don’t you just turn yourself into a coin, we pay the bill, and we’ll be off to Hell in no time?”

Satan liked the idea and turned himself into a coin. Jack took the coin and placed Satan in his pocket next to a crucifix trapping The Devil and outsmarting him.

Satan kept begging to be released. Jack said to Satan, “I’ll release you, but only if you will agree to leave me alone for ten years.

Satan reluctantly agreed to Stingy Jack’s terms.

For ten years Satan agonized over the loss to Stingy Jack. Until the day came. Stingy Jack was stumbling home from the pub on a foggy night. The moon was in full, dimly illuminating his way when Satan appeared in the road just ten feet ahead of Jack, he knew what Satan was there for. Jack said with an intoxicated grin, “Has it been ten years already Satan?”

There was no smile on Satan’s face. He was there for business. Jack smiled at Satan and asked one last request, “Satan, before you take me down south for eternity, may I please have just one last snack? I would like to taste one last apple before we depart.”

Satan agreed. Jack looked at the apple tree off the side of the road and said, “As you can see Satan, I am too legless to climb a tree, could you please fetch me one off the branch?”

As Satan climbed the tree for Jack’s last apple, Stingy Jack began to carve a crucifix into the trunk of the apple tree trapping Satan on the branch, and once again outsmarting the devil. Satan couldn’t believe he had been bested by Stingy Jack for a second time. Satan once again begged and pleaded to be let out of his bindings. Jack just laughed to himself. “The mighty Devil, trapped in a tree like a five-year-old boy.”

Satan was not amused. He had to endure Jack’s mockery before he was willing to make a deal with Satan. When Jack stopped laughing he said to Satan, “I will let you out of the apple tree if you agree that you can never take my soul to Hell.”

Satan, once again grudgingly agreed to Stingy Jack’s terms.

It was many years later, Stingy Jack fell ill and eventually after a lengthy and agonizing death Jack passed.

Jack left this Earth and was presented at Heaven’s gates in front of Saint Peter. St. Peter said, “Jack O’Connor, also known as Stingy Jack. You are denied entry to Heaven due to your evil deeds on Earth.”

Jack was shocked by what Saint Peter said. He thought about how he beat Satan and still was going to wind up in Hell.

He was then sent to the underworld where he appeared in front of Satan for his final time. Satan began to laugh at Jack as he told him, “We had a contract, I can’t take your soul. I will give you this,” Satan gifted Stingy Jack with a hellfire ember inside a carved turnip.

Satan ejected Stingy Jack from Hell and damned him to walk the Earth alone in darkness lit by only one ember from Hell as a reminder of all of his evil deeds.

The End

This was the story of Stingy Jack who started the tradition of the Jack O’Lantern or Jack of the Lantern that we know today. On Halloween we are going to see this influence on many of the doorsteps and front porches.

The story of Stingy Jack was a tale about being a good person and how a bad person, no matter how clever, will eventually outsmart themselves.