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Jack-o’-Lanterns: A Tradition Rooted in Trickery
Pumpkins, of course, herald one of the fall season’s greatest traditions: jack-o’-lanterns. Join Groupon as we illuminate the history behind their flashing faces.
Each fall, people unpack their carving knives and set to work on Halloween’s most macabre traditions: etching ghoulish faces into pumpkins, scooping out the guts of gourds, carving smaller pumpkins into even smaller pumpkins. Indeed, pumpkins are so ubiquitous in the US that their sales reached $113 million in 2012, with many of the gourds no doubt fated to become jack-o’-lanterns. But the tradition of creating eerie lanterns from vegetation isn’t anything new—or even anything particularly American.
According to an old Irish legend, a man known as Stingy Jack shared a drink with the Devil one evening. Not wanting to pay for the drinks himself, Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin. But Jack slipped the coin into his pocket next to a silver cross, trapping the Devil inside, and agreed to let him go only if he agreed not to claim Jack’s soul within one year. The trick worked, and the next year Jack tricked the Devil again—this time buying himself 10 years safe from Hell. Jack died within the decade, however, and now his soul had nowhere to retire; God spurned him for his trickery, and the Devil couldn’t let him into Hell. Instead, the Devil sentenced Stingy Jack to wander the night for eternity and gave him a piece of burning coal, which Jack placed into a carved-out turnip. His spirit soon became known as Jack of the Lantern—or Jack O’Lantern—and, in a sort of ironic tradition, people in Ireland and England came to carve faces into turnips, potatoes, or beets and place them in windows to scare away tricky spirits such as Jack.
As the tradition evolved, some children in England even took on the role of tricksters themselves—an 1887 book by Thomas Darlington describes the turnip jack-o’-lantern as “a common device of mischievous lads for frightening belated wayfarers on the road.” In either case, jack-o’-lanterns became so popular that, when the Irish migrated to the US en masse in the 1800s, they couldn’t leave the tradition behind. Instead, they simply carved faces into pumpkins, which were abundant in America as locomotives rendered more and more magical stagecoaches obsolete.
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