Jack's Backstory: The Story of the Jack O'Lantern by Katherine Tegen
THERE ONCE WAS A MAN NAMED JACK, WHO WAS STINGY AND MEAN.
IF JACK HAD A CHANCE TO TAKE SOMETHING,HE TOOK IT.
IF JACK COULD DO SOMETHING NASTY,HE DID IT.
THE PEOPLE IN THE VILLAGE HID WHEN HE CAME BY.
Being the meanest man in the world is a full-time job, and Jack works at it.
So on one All Hallow's Eve, when Mean Jack meets up with an unusual man with odd hands and feet in the village inn, he is not troubled by the whispers that the stranger is the Devil himself. Jack is all too eager to take advantage of the man's offer of a free meal:
"I'LL PAY FOR YOUR DINNER," SAID THE MAN.
"BUT YOU HAVE TO PAY ME BACK ON THE DAY YOU DIE."
So Jack shrugs his shoulders and does the deal, figuring no one can collect a debt from a dead man.
But tricking the Devil himself is near to impossible, and true to his bargain, on a Hallow's Eve many years later Old Nick is back to collect his due.
All unaware, on his way home from the village, Jack spots some harvested turnips and pumpkins piled by the road and figures his hard-working neighbor will never miss the two plump pumpkins he pinches. Back home, though, as Jack carves open his prize to get at the tasty seeds, a familiar figure appears in front of him.
"IT'S TIME TO PAY ME BACK!" HE SAID.
"BUT I'M NOT DEAD YET!" SAID JACK.
"YOU WILL BE," SAID THE MAN, AS HE THREW A BURNING COAL JACK'S WAY.
Jack manages to dodge the burning coal by catching it in his hollowed-out pumpkin where it glows like a lantern, but he doesn't escape the Devil's penance for his evil ways:
"BECAUSE OF YOUR LIFE OF MEANESS AND GREED, YOU ARE CONDEMNED TO WANDER THE EARTH IN SEARCH OF A HOME."
Katherine Tegen's The Story of the Jack O'Lantern, (Harper, 2010) rounds the edges of this classic origin story of how the familiar glowing pumpkin face, now typically seen cheerily lighting a big grin, became the iconic and ubiquitous emblem of Halloween. As her author's note explains, All Hallow's Eve, or "Hallow'een," the evening before the church holiday of All Souls Day, was the night in which the spirits of the dead, the good and the not-so-good, returned to earth, the good ones to comfort the living and the evil ones to torment them with tricks and evil deeds. The custom of dressing in costumes and carrying candlelit hollow turnips with frightful carved faces to scare off bad spirits persisted in the New World, where Indian pumpkins lent themselves even better as makeshift lanterns--and Jack-o' the Lantern lives on, named for that mean man who it is said still wanders the earth with his own private lantern lit by the Devil's coal of fire.
For youngsters who wonder (and especially for those who don't), Tegen's brief recounting of this piquant piece of folklore, brightly illustrated by veteran artist Brandon Dorman, tells the tale well, a treat that explains how these improbable traditions arose and why those familiar glowing scowls and grins still light the night for us as we, like Jack, go forth for a bit of nighttime foraging on All Hallow's Eve.