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The roots of the Halloween pumpkin

Irish folklore includes spooky story about the origin of the jack-o'-lantern


The days grow cold and the air crisp, telltale signs of the approaching winter months. And with those winter months comes an explosion of festivities, beginning on the last day of October.Anisha Adke

As a child, my favorite part of Halloween (besides the free candy) was always pumpkin carving. We would go to the pumpkin patch, find the most perfect, gigantic pumpkin, haul it home and begin. The brute extraction of innards was satisfying, the blank orange canvas was tantalizing and the smell of roasting pumpkin seeds simply added to the excitement of it all. Little did I know of the dark legend behind each and every jack-o’-lantern.

An Irish folktale tells of Stingy Jack, a lazy but witty drunkard. According to The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, the tale describes a night, Halloween night, when old Jack was coming home from a bar. On his way, he met Satan, who had been on the prowl for souls just like Jack’s. But Jack (somehow, in his drunken state) tricked Satan into climbing a tree and quickly carved a cross into the bark.

Poor Satan found himself stuck in a tree, unable to free himself because of the holy cross that blocked his path. Jack laughed jeeringly at Satan and, delighted with his cleverness, struck up an agreement: Jack would allow Satan to go, as long as he agreed to never take his soul. Satan grudgingly agreed to the terms, hopped down from the tree and disappeared into the night.

Years and years passed, years that Jack mostly spent drunk. He turned to thievery to fund his habit and lived in a general state of unpleasantness. When his time finally came, his soul rose up to the gates of heaven. However, he was refused entry, as he had become a very unlikable, sinful soul and had spent his life drunk and mendacious. He turned on his heel and went to hell.

At hell’s gates, he met Satan. Satan laughed uproariously, reminding him of the agreement the two of them had made many years before. Keeping his promise, Satan refused to take Jack’s soul into hell and instead spitefully threw a piece of coal from the fires of hell at him.

Jack hurried away. It was a cold, cold night, so Jack placed the piece of coal into a hollowed out turnip to keep it from going out. Denied entry from both heaven and hell, Jack gloomily wandered the material world, looking for a place to rest. He may still be looking.

This Irish folktale associates jack-o’-lanterns with those who have been denied entry into both heaven and hell. Similar Celtic folklore says that placing a jack-o’-lantern outside your home would guide the lost spirits who wander the streets on Halloween.

Turnips were originally carved during Halloween, but the tradition changed when European immigrants came to North America. Softer, larger and therefore easier to carve, pumpkins soon replaced turnips as the medium of jack-o’-lanterns.

Tonight, when you light your carefully carved jack-o’-lantern, think of Jack and all the others who were fooled by a loophole in the plan, whose souls may wander down your street. And next year, consider carving a turnip.

Anisha Adke is a senior at Lakeridge High School, and she writes a monthly column for the Review. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .




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