The Jack-O’-Lantern Legend

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Jack O'Lantern

It is an absolute spectacle. We’ve talked about it for days. The excitement has been building, and we’re finally here. Five pairs of legs bending, twisting and stretching, while arms are grabbing, lifting and passing. We’re playing Pumpkin Patch Twister, and it’s every man for himself.

“I want a tall, skinny one!”

“I want mine to be round and fat!”

“I want one that’s shaped like Frankenstein’s head!”

Finding the perfect pumpkin is the first step in one of our family’s favorite fall traditions, and we all take it very seriously. After all, the actual shape of the pumpkin has quite a bearing on the overall success of your final carved product. If you plan to create a Frankenstein jack-o’-lantern, it’s best to find a pumpkin that sports a wide forehead, prominent cheekbones and a squared-off chin. It took a little time, but we eventually found him.

We leave the farm, each of us proudly bear-hugging our own pumpkin, with the exception of my husband, who holds his pumpkin in one arm while the other arm pulls a wagon loaded down with smaller pumpkins to paint, a pumpkin for the dog and one for each guinea pig, two yellow mums and a bundle of Indian corn. We are a family of Michelangelos, with visions of sculpting grandeur dancing in our heads.

When the night of carving arrives, we are ready. Newspapers line the breakfast table. A Hefty bag hangs open, hungry for scraps. Carving utensils are on hand, the camera battery is charged and five pumpkins stand ready for their Halloween makeovers.

Once the tops are removed, the kids jump in with both hands. They scoop and squish the gooey orange pulp and take special care to salvage every seed which will soon be sent to the oven for roasting.

This year, as they trace their designs onto the pumpkins and etch 100 sharp teeth from the rind, I plan to tell my family the story of Stingy Jack, the Irish folktale that gave birth to the term jack-o’-lantern. Here is the myth as it has been retold over the years, and as I will tell it to my wide-eyed children:

“Once upon a time, a man called Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him. Jack, who lived up to his moniker, did not want to spend money, so he persuaded the devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay. The devil agreed, but instead of buying the drinks, Jack decided to keep the money. He put it deep down inside his pocket beside a silver cross, which made the devil unable to turn back to his original form. Eventually, Jack let the devil go, as long as he promised not to bother Jack for one year, and if Jack died, he would not claim his soul.

A year later, Jack convinced the devil to climb a tree for a piece of fruit. While the devil was picking the fruit, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s bark, which prevented the devil from climbing down until he promised Jack that he wouldn’t bother him for 10 more years.

When Jack died, God wouldn’t allow someone so shady into heaven. The devil, upset by the tricks Jack had played on him but keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not let Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved turnip and has wandered the earth with it ever since. The Irish called this ghostly figure Jack of the Lantern, and over time it was shortened to become the term we use today, jack-o’-lantern.

Folks in Ireland and Scotland started carving their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by etching scary faces into turnips or potatoes and setting them near windows and doors to scare away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits.”

When immigrants from those countries came to America, this tradition came with them. They realized that pumpkins, which are native to our country, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns, and that’s why we carve pumpkins to this very day.

While the mouthwatering smell of roasting pumpkin seeds fills our home, and the kids tote their lanterns to the porch to scare off Stingy Jack, I will get ready to take the annual picture on the front steps of our home, feeling joyful that in upholding family traditions, I am also carving new memories.

About the Author

Lori Boyd is a freelance writer who works part time as a registered nurse. She lives in Murfreesboro with her husband and their three children. Every fall, they look forward to pumpkin carving and seed roasting, among many other family traditions.

1 Comment

  1. Tonya Conde

    September 8, 2013 at 7:20 am

    I did not know the story! Thanks for sharing!

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