BY: AL DONATO
At some point in your life, you might find yourself arms-deep in pumpkin guts, seeds falling out of your hair and resisting the urge to carve something phallic into the offending squash.
The tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween is a vegetable-mutilating habit from the holiday’s pagan history we haven’t managed to shake off.
We can thank the Irish however for the folk tale behind the jack-o’-lantern’s origin, and it’s a bit more booze-chugging and Satanic than we’d expect of a day now devoted to giving candy to children.
There are a dozen versions of this story, but they all boil down to this: there was a man named Stingy Jack— and Stingy Jack was a fucking asshole.
Some begin with the devil approaching Stingy Jack one day and telling him it was his time to die; Jack somehow convinces the ruler of hell to have a farewell beer with him. Others begin with Jack and Satan running into each other accidentally or with the two as steadfast buddies already. Either way, Satan and Jack end up having a round at a pub.
Stingy Jack, true to his name, doesn’t want to pick up the tab. He asks Satan if he could shape shift into a coin to pay the bartender with, to which Satan agrees. Then, Jack puts Satan in his pocket, which also held a crucifix, trapping him. Jack kept him there until Satan agreed not to collect his soul for a year (or ten years, depending on the story). Satan did and was freed.
After the time they agreed upon passes, Satan approaches Jack again – this time, regardless of the version, Satan’s pissed and wants to drag Jack to hell. Jack says he will go if Satan gives him a fruit. It’s a bit ridiculous at this point, to be bargaining with the Prince of Darkness, but Satan, maybe out of the goodness of his damned heart, agrees. Satan climbs up a fruit tree (usually it’s an apple tree), and while he’s up there, Jack carves a cross into its trunk, trapping him once more. Jack either asks Satan to leave him alone for another ten years or to never take his soul to hell. The poor gullible fallen angel agrees.
At some point, Jack dies, many versions chalking it up to heavy drinking. God, or St. Peter, isn’t impressed with his unsavory behavior during his time on Earth (or maybe just saw all the bullshit he did to heaven’s own wayward son) and they decide not to open the pearly gates for him. So Jack, of his own volition, tramps down to hell. Satan tells him to piss off; simplified versions of the story say it’s because Jack was a man too evil for hell. Frankly, I think Satan recognized a toxic friendship and just didn’t want to hang out with a guy who ordered him around all the time.
Before leaving, the devil does one last act of unholy kindness and gives Jack a lump of coal, lit from hellfire, and tells him to hit the road. Jack does, and is destined to roam the earth with his coal in a hollowed out turnip forever. When Jack would pass by, the story goes that people would call him “Jack of the Lantern”, and carve terrifying faces in turnips, potatoes or beets to scare him off.
Where do pumpkins come into the picture? Well, as always, blame America: when Irish and British immigrants brought their Halloween traditions across the pond, they found mangling the large orange pumpkins easier and made for creative candlelight.