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Beacon Senior News

Stingy Jack: the legend of the Jack o’ lantern

Sep 30, 2019 12:17PM ● By Randal C. Hill

Every October 31 we see suburban homes displaying fat orange pumpkins aglow with light pouring through triangular eyes and jagged teeth. They stand guard over the house, ready to ward off whatever evil spirits might be lurking about. It’s a good thing that those silent sentinels are on duty. After all, one of those spirits just might be Stingy Jack.

Jack's story starts out in ancient Irish mythology. In the tale, the blacksmith in one particular village was a notorious drunk who lied, cheated, played pranks, manipulated people and did what he could to avoid spending his money. Locals called him Jack the Smith to his face but Stingy Jack behind his back.

According to legend, Lucifer heard of Jack’s vile reputation and decided to seek out the rascal for himself. When the Devil met Jack, this con artist invited him to the town tavern for a drink. True to his name, Jack claimed to be broke when the drinking was done. The wily scoundrel then convinced Satan to turn himself into a coin so Jack could settle the evening’s tab. The bemused Devil took on the requested shape, and Jack slipped the coin into his coat pocket— right next to a silver crucifix. The cross kept Satan from shifting back to his original form. Jack then slipped out of the tavern without paying the bill.

Eventually, Jack let Lucifer loose, but only after making him promise not to bother him for one year and not to claim the blacksmith’s soul when he died.

Jack was still up to his usual machinations one year later. When the Devil came to collect the reprobate’s soul, Jack begged for a single last request: a juicy red apple.

While Lucifer was climbing a nearby tree, Jack hurriedly carved the sign of the cross into the tree’s trunk. As a result, the Devil couldn’t return to solid ground until he promised once more to leave Jack alone—this time for a full decade.

Predictably, Jack wasted the next 10 years drinking, causing problems and annoying people. When he finally died and met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, the good saint turned him away, convinced that God wouldn’t want such a miserable hunk of humanity in Heaven. And when Jack turned up at the gates of Hell, Satan, who was still smarting from the tricks Jack had pulled on him earlier, refused to admit him into Hades. After all, the Devil smugly maintained, that had been part of their original bargain.

The Devil sent Jack off into the night to “find his own hell” in the dark and mysterious netherworld.

The hapless penny pincher stumbled into the darkness, his path dimly lit by a single burning chunk of coal that the Devil had given to him to create a makeshift lantern. Jack plucked a turnip from the ground, carved an opening in it and placed the ember inside. Ever since that night, Stingy Jack has been roaming the Earth, finding neither peace nor resting place.

The Irish began referring to his ghostly figure as “Jack of the lantern,” which was eventually shortened to “Jack o’ lantern.”

In Ireland, then later in Scotland and England, people began replicating Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips, potatoes, gourds and beets. Eventually, migrants brought the Irish tradition of Stingy Jack to America. It was here that newly arrived folks found that pumpkins, which were native to America, made perfect Jack o’ lanterns.

Today, the Stingy Jack legend has taken a back seat to costumes, candy and Charlie Brown cartoons at Halloween. However, that doesn’t mean that the creepy codger isn’t still wandering about in the darkness somewhere. Maybe even in your own neighborhood.