Last Week in History

The history behind a Halloween pastime

Meghan Dickson, BU History Club

During this past weekend, I was at home carving pumpkins with my cousin, to decorate my house for the upcoming Halloween holiday. During the carving, my cousin and I began to wonder why we carve pumpkins in the first place. Why pumpkins? Where did the classic Jack o’Lantern face with three triangles for the eyes and nose and a toothy grin come from? And why is it called JACK o’Lantern and not Bob o’Lantern or even Meghan o’Lantern? I looked at to give me some answers.

According to, the Jack o’Lantern tradition was brought over to the United States by Irish immigrants who had been carving gourds like turnips since the 19th century after hearing the myth of Stingy Jack. When the Irish immigrants came to the United States they began using the squash that is native to North America, pumpkin. 

The tradition in Ireland starts with a man nicknamed Stingy Jack. One day, Stingy Jack has a drink with the vDevil but he does not want to pay for the drinks. He has the Devil turn into a coin to be able to pay but instead of paying Jack pockets the coin, placing it next to a silver cross, not allowing the Devil to change form. 

Stingy Jack eventually releases the Devil on the condition that the Devil will not bother Jack for one year and will not claim his soul when he dies. The Devil agrees and does not bother Jack for a year. After the year was up, the Devil is tricked yet again by Jack when he gets trapped in a tree when he is picking fruit and Jack carves a cross on the trunk of the tree.

When Stingy Jack dies the Devil keeps to the second part of the deal and does not allow him into hell since he can not claim Jack’s soul. Jack is shut out of heaven as well because he made a deal with the Devil. Jack, now must roam the Earth as a spirit with just a single lit piece of coal that he put into a carved turnip to guide his way. Jack was often referred to as “Jack of the Lantern”, later becoming Jack o’Lantern. 

People of Ireland, Scotland, and England make their own carved lights either from turnips, potatoes, or beets, to be placed outside their home to keep away Stingy Jack and evil spirits. And in modern times we continue this Irish tradition by carving pumpkins to decorate our homes for Halloween.   

Meghan is a sophomore History major and member of the BU History Club.