The Legend of the Jack O’Lantern

The legend of the Jack O’Lantern originated in Ireland with a tale of a miserly blacksmith named Stingy Jack.

On Halloween night Jack ran into the devil at a pub. Before the devil could collect his doomed soul, Jack convinced the devil he should have one last drink but he had no money. 

Jack was as sly as he was stingy. He convinced the devil to turn into a sixpence so he could get that last drink. The devil’s pride was his downfall, he couldn’t resist showing off his shapeshifting skills so he promptly became a sixpence on the counter.

Jack didn’t buy a drink, he shoved that sixpence into his pocket with a silver cross and trapped the devil. He wouldn’t let the devil out until he promised not to collect Jack’s soul for another ten years.

Ten years later on Halloween night the devil tried to collect Jack’s soul again. This time Jack convinced the devil to fetch him an apple. While the devil was in the tree jack pulled out his penknife and carved a cross on the trunk of the tree trapping the devil in the tree. Jack condition for getting the devil down?  He made the devil promise not to come calling for his soul ever again.

When Jack died years later he was turned away from Heaven for his sinful ways. When he tried to enter Hell the devil said “I cannot break my word” because he had promised not to collect Jack’s soul. “Go away; go back where you came from,” the devil shouted at him.”

“It’s dark, how will I find my way?” Jack asked.

The devil threw him a glowing coal which Jack placed in a turnip he had been eating. He became Jack of the Lantern wandering the earth alone for all eternity.

Throughout England and Ireland ghostly lights would appear over bogs and marshes. These lights were known as Lantern Men, Hob O’Lanterns, Will-O’- the-Wisps, Corpse Candles and Jack O’Lanterns.

These pale eerie lights would bob along like a lantern in someone’s hand. Horses would shy away from such lights, people learned to beware.  Following the lights could lead a person to doom. Following the lights would cause people to get lost and sometimes sucked into a watery grave in the bogs and swamps.

The ghostly lights hanging over graves in swampy areas were known as Corpse Candles. Fishermen in Kent believed them to be messages from sailors lost at sea who want a proper burial. Legend says that if you can find any piece of the sailor, even just one bone, and bury it properly the soul will be satisfied and the Corpse Candle will go out.

If you encounter Jack on the road you should put out your lantern so Jack doesn’t smash it to pieces. And don’t let him follow you home.

Scientists call these strange lights ignis fatuus which is Medieval Latin for "foolish fire".  These marshy lights caused by gas escaping from rotting vegetation.  But what causes the phosphorescent color and the bobbing motion? Are fairies or spirits behind these mysterious occurrences? Why are they so predominant during the Halloween season?

Better not take any chances, carve your own lantern to keep you safe. In Scotland lanterns were originally carved from turnips and in Ireland they used potatoes. In the English village of Hinton St George punkies are carried through town on Halloween night. These “punkies” are special lanterns carved from large beets known as mangel-wurzels. Prizes are awarded for the best carved beets.

In the United States immigrants discovered the American Pumpkin, a new canvas for their lantern art. The bright colors, round shapes and soft insides made them perfect for carving.

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