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You Don’t Know Jack (o’-Lantern)

The history of Halloween’s symbol


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Click on the video above to hear about the story behind Halloween’s quintessential icon.

Some trick-or-treaters are terrified by them. Others carry them on their quest for goodies. But whatever you happen to be doing this Halloween, chances are you, too, will be met by the devilish grin of a jack-o’-lantern.

But for all of the pumpkin carving, candle lighting, and doorstep adorning of All Hallows’ Eve, did you ever wonder about the Jack behind the lantern? Who was this creepy character and how did we come to adopt him?

BU Today asked Adam Sweeting, a College of General Studies associate professor of humanities, to share the tale of Jack and the Devil and how pumpkins came to replace turnips as Halloween’s candle-bearing symbol.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.


3 Comments on You Don’t Know Jack (o’-Lantern)

  • Merlinus on 10.31.2008 at 9:04 am

    The story starts earlier

    While an amusing story.. this is a typical christian co-option and absorption of an earlier sacred tradition.

    Samhain involved a gathering around the bonfire for a New Year celebration, the commitment of the community to each other in the sharing of a comman bonfire, and the ritual carrying home of a flame from the bonfire in a vegetable carved with small airholes and scary features to keep away the evils of the night.

    Faced with a Gaelic tradition that refused to die, the church co-opted the symbols of the carved root vegetable held by the community walking at night to transfer the power of fellowship and sacred tradition into reverence for their newly overlaid ‘christian’ traditions.


  • Dill on 11.02.2008 at 3:12 pm

    Earlier indeed

    I totally agree. So many of so the called christian “traditions” have been taken from pre-christian spiritual practices that’s it’s hard to find any christian (or even non-christian, after all Halloween is hardly christian in any sense of the word) that does not owe a great deal to pre-christian spiritual practices; e.g. the whole easter egg thing; the whole christmas tree thing; the symbolism of mary mother of god is all predated in much earlier matriarchal spirituality; in fact the entire story of christ is pre-dated in Dionysius and in the stories of Egyptian mythology and in the Babylonian epics etc etc and so on…..and so on…the christians have nothing new to offer.

  • Justin on 10.26.2009 at 8:11 pm

    The jack-o-lantern MAY

    The jack-o-lantern MAY originate from Ireland with the Irish immigrants during the time frame of the Potato Famine but much of Halloween is rooted in the Celtic religion of Great Britain. Upon studying history, one finds that the Druids, on the night halloween, would go to towns and villages and ask for a slave girl or some other female for a “treat” if they failed to receive their treat, than they would draw a pentegram on the wall of the village hoping to invoke the god of the dead to come into that town and kill someone. However, if they received their “treat”–the girl then they would leave a pumpkin outside the village with a carved image on the pumpkin, which resembled the god of the dead. This supposedly appeased the god of the dead and he would do no harm to anyone in that town.
    As far as Christianity and Halloween is concerned, jack-o-lanterns violate Christianity. The Catholics absorbed Halloween into their religion with “All Souls Day,” but everything surrounding Halloween contradicts Scripture, beginning with the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments).

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