That’s a Fact, Jack: History of the Jack-O-Lantern

Have you ever seen a flickering light, perhaps over a foggy river or hovering above a misty hilltop, that seems to recede the closer you get to its source?  For hundreds of years, this phenomenon was referred to by several names: Will O’ the Wisp, Ignius Fatuus, and, Jack O’Lantern. In 1750, a printed mention of a Jack-O-Lantern referred to a nightwatchman toting a lantern.  All of these incarnations, including our modern use as a fun, often comic, Halloween decoration, actually has very ancient Celtic origins.

The old folktale goes like this.

Jack, an Irish blacksmith, had the misfortune of running into the Devil in a pub on Halloween.  Jack had drank a bit too much that evening and the Devil thought him easy prey, but the clever trickster made a bargain with the Devil.  In exchange for one last drink, Jack offered up his soul.  Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence that Jack could use to buy their drinks.  The Devil changed his form to make payment to the bartender, but Jack pocketed the coin in a bag with a silver cross with the knowledge that the cross would prevent the Devil from changing back.  Once in his purse, Jack only freed the Devil after he agreed not to claim his soul for ten years.

Ten years later, the Devil met Jack walking on a country road and told him that he was there to collect his soul.  Jack, feigned compliance, but asked the Devil if he would first climb an apple tree and get him an apple.  The Devil, having nothing to lose, climbed the tree, but as he reached for the apple, Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross in the tree’s trunk. The Devil was unable to come back down until he had agreed never to claim Jack’s soul.

Some years later, Jack died and went to Heaven.  But he was dismissed from St. Peter’s gate because he was too much of an unsavory figure to allow in.  He then went to Hades, but the Devil was bound never to claim his soul, and so would not allow him to enter.  Instead, he sent him away with only a burning ember to light his way.  Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been doomed to roam the Earth in darkness ever since. The Irish began to refer to his damned soul and ghostly light as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’ Lantern.”

It has been believed for centuries that on Hallow’s Eve, evil spirits roam the Earth, “Stingy Jack” among them. For hundreds of years on that frightening night, the Irish carved scary faces into potatoes and turnips and placed them in windows and doorway to scare away Jack and other spirits.  When the Irish immigrated to the United States, they brought their tradition with them, with one amendment. They discovered that pumpkins had the perfect surface for carving the best frightening faces.

Glowing Jack-O-Lanterns came much later, most likely  because of an article published in the New York Times in 1900 which recommended lighting a pumpkin as part of the festivities. The suggestion, of course, caught on and now millions of us scoop out pumpkin “guts,” put a candle in its hollowed-out interior, and wait for our ghosts and goblins to arrive. 

Bonus Fact:

What was the original reason for “dressing up” on Halloween? Apparently evil spirits aren’t all that bright. A simple mask was thought to be able to fool those troublemakers into believing we are not who they think we are.  And… maybe we’re not.


Seven Wonderful Christmas Stories: Listen, Love, Remember

Looking for some great Christmas stories to listen to as you cook or wrap gifts?  Here are some of the best, both modern and traditional, to make your holiday tasks fly by!

“The Santaland Diaries” made humorist David Sedaris famous in 1997. The story recounts the exploits of a 30-something under-employed author who finds a temporary job at Macy’s department store, working as an elf in Santa’s Village. “I wear green, velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform,” the story begins. Sedaris is deservedly famous both for his humor and his keen insight into human behavior.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Hear Capote himself read this touching Christmas story as he remembers his childhood with his eccentric, child-like aunt, who made the young author’s troubled childhood not only bearable but special.  The story invites us as ghostly guests to

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

If you would prefer to read the story rather than listen, a full text version can be found here.

Christmas Freud by David Rakoff. In 1996, New York’s Barney’s department store, famous for their elaborate and sometimes eccentric Christmas display windows, hired essayist David Rakoff to play Sigmund Freud to create a live performance art piece. Rakoff sat in the window. Various actors pretended to be his patients before a crowd of curious and often confused onlookers. Rakoff records his thoughts about his role in the farce as well as numerous funny, cynical observations about the crowd.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Listen to this classic tale read by Orson Welles in this 1938 version, recorded live at the historic Mercury Theatre. There is still time to mend your ways!

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. Along with “The Brothers Grimm,” Hans Christian Andersen is responsible for recording in print a good number of the folktales with which most of us are familiar. In this sentimental story, written in 1845, a poor child lives out her hopes and dreams in her imagination, even as her life slips away.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. Who doesn’t know Clement Clarke Moore’s famous opening lines? ” Twas the night before Christmas, / And all through the house, / Not a creature was stirring, / Not even a mouse.” Listen to the poem in its entirety as you bake with your kids or wrap up those last minute gifts once they’re in bed!

John Henry Faulk’s Christmas Story. A traditional favorite on NPR, storyteller and musician John Henry Faulk’s recollections of the holidays in his native Texas have been a staple of holiday listening for fans since 1974. The tale begins with Faulk as an adult. He recalls:

The day after Christmas a number of years ago, I was driving down a country road in Texas. And it was a bitter cold, cold morning. Walking ahead of me on the gravel road was a little bare-footed boy with non-descript ragged overalls and a makeshift sleeved sweater tied around his little ears. I stopped and picked him up. Looked like he was about 12 years old and his little feet were blue with the cold. He was carrying an orange.

That orange, who gave this impoverished child so much joy, makes Faulk, and his listeners, re-evaluate their priorities during the hectic holiday season.


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