During the 1800’s a myth originated in Ireland. The story goes that there was a mean, old drunkard named Jack, who loved to play tricks on people. He even managed to play tricks on the devil. Jack once tricked the devil into climbing a tree. Once he was up there Jack quickly placed crosses around the trunk or carved a cross into the bark, so that the Devil couldn’t get down. Another myth says that Jack put a key in the Devil’s pocket while he was suspended upside-down. Jack made the devil promise that Jack would never be allowed into hell.
The name, “Jack o lantern”, which originally meant “night watchman”, is at least 300 years old.
“Jack o lantern” was also associated with “will o the wisp”, which was a term used for lights seen flickering in the dark over swamps.
The tradition of hollowing out vegetables and putting candles inside them is a long one. It originated in Ireland or the Brittish Isles. The vegetable of choice was a turnip or potato. They were carved and filled with a candle. These were placed outside of people’s doorways to ward off evil spirits. This was especially done on All Hallow’s Eve, or halloween, to ward off evil spirits.
When Jack finally died, he was too bad to get into Heaven, and the devil wouldn’t let him into Hell. Jack was made to wander for all eternity. To mock him, the devil tossed Jack a glowing ember from hell. Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the ember inside of it.
Another version of the myth says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met the Devil, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (the Devil could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin/Devil disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it. The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack’s wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped.
In both myths, Jack only lets the Devil go when he agrees never to take his soul. After a while the thief died, as all living things do. Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, the Devil had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from hell as well.
Jack now had nowhere to go.
He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and the Devil mockingly tossed him an ember that would never burn out from the flames of hell.
Jack carved out one of his turnips (which was his favourite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern”, or Jack-o’-Lantern.