Carving pumpkins has been an autumn tradition in the United States since the late 19th century. But for many years before pumpkin jack-o-lanterns became an expected part of the season, a folk legend circulated through the British Isles, and came with immigrants to the New World. This is the story of Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack was a miserable old drunk who took pleasure in playing tricks on just about everyone: family, friends, his mother, and even the Devil himself.
As the story goes, Stingy Jack, often described as a blacksmith, invited the Devil to join him for a drink.
True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The Devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and put the Devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so the Devil couldn’t shift back to his original form.
Jack eventually let the Devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.
Later, Jack irked the Devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit. After the Devil climbed up the tree, Stingy Jack hurriedly carved a cross in the trunk. Unable to touch a cross, the Devil was stuck in the tree (the Devil is, apparently, a sucker). Stingy Jack made the Devil promise not to bother him for ten more years, and not to take his soul when he died. Once the devil promised, Jack freed him again, and the Devil climbed down out of the apple tree.
Many years later, Jack died. He went to the pearly gates of Heaven and was told by Saint Peter that he was mean and cruel, and had led a miserable, worthless life on earth. Stingy Jack was not allowed to enter heaven. He then went down to Hell and the Devil. But the Devil kept his promise and would not allow him to enter Hell. Now Jack was scared. He had nowhere to go, but to wander about forever in the dark Netherworld between heaven and hell.
He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and Satan mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of Hades, that would never burn out.
Jack had a turnip with him. It was one of his favorite foods, and he always carried one with him. Jack hollowed out the turnip, and placed the ember inside it. From that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the earth, endlessly searching for a resting place. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern”, or Jack-o’-lantern.