The Origins of the Jack O’Lantern

The Origins of the Jack O’Lantern

It is hard to imagine Halloween without the glowing, grinning face of a Jack O’Lantern, but where exactly does the Jack O’Lantern come from?

Jack O’Lanterns trace their origins back to Ireland, the same place where Halloween originated, emerging out of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Historians are not exactly sure how far back the carving of Jack O’Lanterns dates, but they believe the tradition is tied to an Irish folk tale.

The folk tale, with its oldest known written version dating back to the 19th century, is known as Stingy Jack. According to the tale:

“An old curmudgeon named Jack lived in an Irish village many years ago. Jack was not known to make or keep many friends, for he loved drink and coin more than his fellow man. His spendthrift and vitriolic ways earned him the moniker “Stingy Jack,” and the townsfolk knew well to stay away from him. One autumnal evening, Stingy Jack was making his way to the local tavern, one of the few places he was begrudgingly tolerated due to the tavern being the one place he freely spent his money. During his visit to the tavern, a stranger sat down at Jack’s table. This stranger introduced himself as the Devil and informed Jack he was here to take his soul to hell for his life of sin. Jack asked the Devil to have one last drink before they departed, and the Devil agreed. When it came time to pay their tab, Jack asked, “If you really are the Devil, then you should transform yourself into a coin to pay for our tab!” The Devil pridefully obliged, turning himself into a silver coin. Jack, however, had other plans. He slipped the coin into his pocket, that also contained a small crucifix, trapping the Devil inside. Jack bargained with the Devil, requesting that the Devil spare Jack for a year and not take his soul to Hell in exchange for his freedom. The Devil had little choice to but agree to Jack’s proposition. When a year had passed the Devil came to collect his due, but Jack had another trick up his sleeve. Before going, Jack asked the Devil if he could have an apple for the nearby tree, to make one last meal before he departed. The Devil obliged and climbed a nearby apple tree to retrieve an apple for Jack. As the Devil climbed the tree, Jack quickly carved crucifixes around the trunk of the tree, once again trapping the Devil. This time Jack asked for the Devil to leave him be for ten years and to not take his soul to Hell. The Devil again had little choice but to agree. Just a few short months later, Jack died. Jack’s soul at first made its way to the Gates of Heaven, where his wicked soul was denied entry. Jack then made his way to the Gates of Hell, where the Devil also denied Jack entry because for the tricks Jack had played on him. Jack would be doomed to wander the Earth as a restless spirit, neither entering Heaven or Hell, for eternity. Before he parted to meet his lonely fate, the Devil, feeling a touch of sympathy for Jack, offered him a glowing ember from Hell itself. Jack placed the ember into a hollowed turnip to make a lantern to light his way. From that day on, Jack wanders the Earth, with only his turnip lantern as a guide. So on Halloween night, when restless spirits wander most freely, townsfolk carve their own lanterns from turnips, to steer the spirit of Jack of the Lantern away from their homes.”

The most curious part of this story is inevitably the fact that the original Jack O’Lanterns were carved from turnips. This may seem odd, but it is a simple matter of availability. Pumpkins are not native to Ireland and were only introduced in more modern times. Root vegetables, such as turnips, are native to Ireland and grow abundantly. Therefore, turnips were the best option to be used to carve Jack O’Lanterns.

An assortment of carved turnip Jack O'Lanterns. <br/>Alex Ryan Thompson, ©2023, Clemson Extension

An assortment of carved turnip Jack O’Lanterns.
Alex Ryan Thompson, ©2023, Clemson Extension

When Irish immigrants made their way to North America (where pumpkins are native and abundant), they brought their Halloween traditions with them, and the Jack O’Lantern became the iconic orange symbol we know today.
To carve your own turnip Jack O’Lanterns, choose firm, fresh turnips of a size large enough to be easily carved. Cut the stem top of the turnip off and begin to hollow the turnip using a pairing knife and a sturdy metal spoon, taking care not to cut yourself. Place a battery-operated tea candle in your turnip to steer Jack of the Lantern away from your Halloween celebrations. Turnip lanterns should last 3 to 4 days inside the house.

Note: Open-flame tea candles can also be used, but they will warm up the turnip, shortening the time they will last.

So, as you carve your Jack O’Lantern (pumpkin or turnip) this year, remember the story of Jack of the Lantern, a lesson in the value of honesty and a reminder that the Devil always gets his due.

Additional Resources:

HGIC How to Pick a Pumpkin and Select the Best Mums

HGIC 3281, Preserving Pumpkin and Winter Squash

HGIC 1324, Turnips and Rutabagas

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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