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The true story of Jack ’o Lantern

Posted 10/15/2015


During October, the most popular American vegetable is the bright orange squash we know as pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima, or C. moschata). There is even a “world’s largest pumpkin” contest, with a significant cash prize. This popularity is not because large numbers of people suddenly crave pumpkin pie.

We know the reason pumpkins fetch a high price during this month is because many of us are carving jack-o-lanterns, for either fright or delight. Although it is possible to see more ornate carvings than the traditional scary face, they all start with a pumpkin.

Have you wondered how holiday traditions started? A few are apparent, like Christmas trees and mistletoe, which bring a dash of green to places where winters are long, dark, grey and cold. Others are far less likely. One of these is the Jack o’ Lantern. How is it that we have come to carve a face or a scene out of a pumpkin, place a light within it, to create the archetypal Halloween decoration? The answer is a curious story from Ireland, which does not have a tradition of Halloween, nor does it have the climate to grow pumpkins.

This is the story of a terrible man who lived in Ireland many years ago. As with so many legends, it is not clear exactly when or how it began, but the story exists nevertheless. Jack was a mean person, greedy, and friendless, which is exactly how he preferred living. No one would be the recipient of his largesse, since he had none. Few people would deal with him unless there was absolutely no alternative. Although he lived in a place where most people considered good neighbors essential, he saw no need for friends or family. As a result, he had none. It will not be a surprise to learn that he also had no use for religion.

One night, alone in his squalid living quarters, he died and left this earth to meet his maker. No one in the rural village mourned him, and it is not clear where his burial site was located. It was most likely a sad, unmarked spot. The location hardly mattered, since there would certainly not be any visitors to his gravesite. His soul, however, did travel to the afterlife. At the pearly gates, the local authorities looked at the terrible man’s history and realized there was no way he could gain entry into heaven. As a result, Jack was quickly sent down to the devil, where he would stay for eternity.

The devil was delighted at first to have yet another soul whom he could torture, but Jack was a rare breed. Rather than fitting into the misery of that place, he was no less awful in hades than he had been on earth. In a relatively short period, at least by eternal standards, he had made life even more miserable for the rest of the souls in that bleak place. They complained that this new fellow was simply too terrible to be around. That was, of course, not something that the devil had encountered before. Could anyone really be worse than the other wretched souls there? It would seem that Jack was. This put the devil in a quandary; it would be pointless to bother sending this character back up to heaven, which would not have him. On the other hand, Jack could not remain where he was.

It took a lot of thought, but finally the devil announced that he was evicting Jack, who would spend the rest of eternity wandering alone in the darkness. He told his demonic landlord that he was not bothered by this, since he was content to be on his own.

Jack travelled for a long while, but eventually returned to the devil, telling him that he could not continue roaming in the total darkness. He was not looking for companionship, of course, but the darkness was simply too much.

“Give me a bit of light,” he demanded. This was yet another new situation for the devil, who was unaccustomed to responding to commands. After much consideration, however, he decided that it was worth acquiescing to that accursed Jack, simply to be rid of him.

The devil lit a candle and handed it to his unwelcome visitor. “And give me something to hold it!” Jack was nothing if not insistent. A turnip (or a rutabaga, depending on the storyteller) appeared. Jack bored a hole in the vegetable and stuck his candle into it. He continued on his solitary path, with the dim light of the candle for company.

When Irish nights are dark, a faint glimmer might appear on the road. Anyone unlucky enough to encounter this ghostly light knew that was “Jack o’ Lantern”. The story travelled across the Atlantic, where we replaced the turnip with a pumpkin.

Email or call Angela O’Callaghan, Social Horticulture Specialist, at 702-257-5581.

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