Pumpkin Jack, Unlikely Halloween Hero

Grim-grinning ghouls….

Have you ever wondered why we carve pumpkins for Halloween, and why they’re sometimes called Jack O’ Lanterns or Pumpkin Jacks?  The lanterns were originally turnips. They were used in Samhain, a Gaelic harvest which took place on the 31st of October and the 1st of November.  Samhain was a time when fairies roamed the earth, making mischief.  People put lanterns on their windowsills to protect their home from evil spirits and vampires, or to represent the light of the benevolent wee folk.  Wives put them outside the front door to show their husbands the way home.

Irish and Scottish immigrants took the tradition to the US, where the turnip was replaced by the much bigger pumpkin, which was already a staple of American harvest festivals.

The face on the pumpkin is Jack O’ Lantern, or Pumpkin Jack. He was originally a character in Irish folklore called Stingy Jack.  In some stories he is a farmer, in others a blacksmith.  A very stingy man, he was once being chased by a gang of blokes he owed money to.  He bumped into the devil who agreed to help him in return for his soul.  The devil turned into a silver coin but, instead of handing it to his creditors, Jack popped it in his wallet, where he kept a little silver cross. The devil was trapped, and Jack only let him out when he promised not to claim his soul when he died.

Another version of the story has Jack tricking the devil into climbing up an apple tree.  While the devil is munchingapples, he carves a cross on the branch with a penknife.  The devil is unable to climb down and promises not to drag Jack to hell if he erased the cross.

Both stories end with Jack dying of too much liquor.  He flies to the pearly gates where he is refused entry.  He goes down to hell, where the devil too won’t let him in.  Poor Jack is condemned to walk the earth forever, searching for a place to rest.  The devil, having pity on him, fills his hollowed turnip with embers from the fires of hell so he can see his way in the dark….

It’s a delightfully ghoulish story, and one that has entertained story lovers for many years.  It has also inspired writers and artists from Frank L. Baum to Tim Burton.  Here’s a poem  from J. G. Whittier, written in 1850

THE PUMPKIN

Oh!—fruit loved of boyhood!—the old days recalling,

When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!

When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,

Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!

Other Halloween posts you might like:

Baba Yaga, Halloween Witch

Don’t Slam the door – the Ghost in Dornoch Cathedral, Scotland

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3 Comments

Filed under Fairy Tale posts

3 responses to “Pumpkin Jack, Unlikely Halloween Hero

  1. Wow! Tremendous information, I can’t decide which is my favourite version, I think where he traps the devil in wallet with the cross.

    I’ll be talking about this all day now!

    • Thanks for the comment. I prefer the wallet version too. My nan used to carry a small crucifix in her purse along with her money. I used to see a flash of silver every time she opened it.

  2. Oh my goodness! an amazing article dude. Thanks Nevertheless I’m experiencing subject with ur rss . Dont know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anybody getting an identical rss drawback? Anybody who is aware of kindly respond. Thnkx

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