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  • Krysta M. Nelson

The Irish Legend of Stingy Jack

An opld Post Card Depicting the Irish Leged of Stingy Jack

Oh, autumn, what a wonderful time of year! It's a time to break out all my favorite sweaters just as the leaves turn into vibrant shades of yellow, orange, and red. And best of all, the arrival of Halloween, my favorite holiday. My nickname as a kid was Little Miss Mess Maker, as carving pumpkins has always been my favorite Halloween activity–one time, I even recreated a horror movie with gourd guts. While carving pumpkins is extremely popular, most people don’t know the myth behind the mess and tradition.

An old post card depictig two elves carving a pumpkin with a fork and knife

Long ago, in a small Irish town, a drunkard named Stingy Jack earned his moniker after tricking the Devil himself. Jack was notorious in his little town, and Satan had heard of his mischievous deeds. Jack may have been known for being a drunken scoundrel—scuttered and bollocksed—but he was also a clever lad, so he convinced the Devil to take him to his favorite pub as a last request and pay the bill. When the tab came due, Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin so Jack could pay for the drinks, then they could leave for the underworld.

The Devil was fooled. And instead of paying up, Jack dropped the coin into his pocket alongside a silver crucifix, trapping the fiery foe in the form of a coin. The Devil begged Stingy Jack to release him. And so Jack released him, but only on the condition that the Devil would not bother him for another year, and should Jack die, Satan could not claim his soul. True to his word, the Devil didn’t return for a whole year. When the Devil finally reappeared to claim his soul, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a fruit tree and picking him a last meal before traveling to Hell. Once the Devil reached the top of the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark of the tree trunk, trapping the Devil high among the branches. Again, Satan begged Jack for freedom, but this time, Jack made the Devil promise to not bother him for another 10 years.

Of course, the Devil agreed to his terms and was freed. Jack died soon after that. Because of his mischief and sins, he was denied entrance to Heaven. Upset by the trickery and scheming and true to his word of not claiming his soul, Satan also denied Jack entrance into Hell. As a parting gift, the Devil gifted Jack a lump of burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night. Jack placed the burning coal in a hollowed-out turnip, and he has roamed the earth ever since. The Irish began calling this eerie creature “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack O’Lantern” for short.

In Ireland and Scotland, people began carving their own unique versions of jack-o’-lanterns, cutting terrifying faces into turnips, potatoes, beets, or rutabagas, and lighting and displaying them near doors or windows to frighten away Stingy Jack and other evil spirits. In the mid-1800s, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they moved to the U.S. And they soon found that pumpkins, a large fruit native to America, made for perfect jack-o’- lanterns. Since then, there have been many attempts in popular culture to revive this long-forgotten tradition of carving jack-o’-lanterns from turnips. In 2015, due to a severe pumpkin shortage caused by severe rain, the charity English Heritage called for Brits to rekindle their love for turnip carving and return to the original tradition of turnip jack-o’- lanterns. English Heritage even went so far as to install many ghoulish turnip jack-o’-lanterns at Dover Castle to inspire others to do the same. Whether carving turnips will become popular again is still unknown.

There are, however, many benefits to turnip carving over pumpkin carving. There’s no stringy pumpkin mess or seeds to clean out. Turnips are quite small and portable, so they can actually be hung like little lanterns. Also, turnips are cheap! So you can afford to make dozens and dozens if you’re so inclined. If they’re careful with a knife, older kids can carve a turnip by themselves because they’re so much simpler and smaller. The red-white color and eerie roots are scarier than pumpkins. After you scoop out the insides of the turnip, you can make mashed turnips. Yum! And because they’re available year-round, you can carve turnips for more than just jack-o’-lanterns — votive holders, artwork, or whatever you want.

An old post card depicting three smiling jack-o-lanterns sitting on a fence

So, there you have it, the Irish Legend of Stingy Jack. I love it when holidays and their fun-filled activities have such a rich history as Halloween and the Stingy Jack origin of pumpkin carving. And the fact that the account is also a ghost story is even more fun!

Whether you choose to carve a pumpkin or turnip, I hope you and yours have a safe, fun, messy, and memorable holiday.

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