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The Story Of The Jack In Jack-‘O-Lantern

Vintage Wisconsin: Pumpkins A New World Take On Irish Folk Story

Wisconsin Historical Images

Pumpkins are one of the most recognizable symbol of Halloween, adorning porches, windows and in the above image, a classroom in Madison. Many a Wisconsin fall would not be complete without a trip to the pumpkin patch.

But the carving tradition began not with pumpkins but with turnips and the Irish story of “Stingy Jack.”

According to legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink but true to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink. Instead, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay for the drinks. But rather than pay — he was Stingy Jack after all— Jack pocketed the coin. Beside the coin was a silver a cross that prevented the Devil from changing back.

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Jack did eventually allow the Devil to return to his original form as long as he promised not to bother Jack or claim his soul should Jack not survive the year. The next year, Jack tricked the Devil again, this time to climb a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While the Devil climbed, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s bark so the Devil couldn’t come down until he promised not to bother Jack for ten years.

When Jack finally died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven and the Devil, true to his word, wouldn’t allow Jack into hell. So he sent Jack off with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved turnip and has been roaming the Earth ever since, becoming known as “Jack of the lantern” or “jack-o-lantern.”

To ward off Stingy Jack and other unsavory characters, people began carving scary faces into vegetables and placing them near windows and doors. Immigrants brought this tradition to North America where they discovered pumpkins, a fruit native to America, which also made an exceptional canvas for carving.

We don’t know when the first pumpkin was carved in Wisconsin but we do know that settlers enjoyed pumpkin pie fairly early on. Giant pumpkins also caught on quickly, too, with one grown on the Apostle Islands in 1877 reaching 81 pounds.

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