The Legend Behind the Jack-O-Lantern
Okay, I get the history of Halloween, but what about that Jack-O-Lantern? Where the heck did a pumpkin with a scary face and a candle inside come from? Well, this author went on an investigation and got to the bottom of the origins of this iconic symbol of Halloween.
It all started back in Ireland with a man called “Stingy Jack”. According to the story, Stingy Jack was having a drink with the Devil, and true to his character, didn’t want to pay for it. Well, doesn’t that just spell trouble right there? It gets worse. Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin and used it to pay for their drinks. Wanting to keep the money for himself, Stingy Jack pocketed the coin with a silver cross so the old Devil couldn’t turn back into his rightful form. After some time, Jack freed the Devil, but with conditions. The Devil couldn’t bother Jack for a year, and should Jack die, the Devil could not claim his soul. A year later, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick some fruit. (Is the Devil this stupid?) Anyhow, while the Devil was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the bark of the tree to prevent the Devil from coming back down the tree. Once again, Jack extracts a promise from the Devil not to bother him for ten years.
Not long afterward, Jack died. Well, don’t you know, God wasn’t going to allow such a conniving character into Heaven. After the trickery Jack had heaped on the Devil, the Devil certainly wasn’t going to let Jack spend eternity in Hell. And just for a little pay-back, the Devil sent off Jack with a coal ember to light his way into the dark night. Old Stingy Jack put the coal ember into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish came to call Jack’s apparition, “Jack of the Lantern”, and later, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
The Celts of Ireland and Scotland began making their own versions of Jack’s lantern out of turnips and beets.
When they came to America, they brought the legend of Jack O’Lantern with them and continued the tradition of making lanterns out of vegetables. Eventually, they discovered pumpkins, a fruit native to America, made the best possible lanterns.
In the 1820 story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, the headless horseman uses a lighted pumpkin hung from his saddle and chases Ichabod Crane. All that remained after the incident was the horse, a hat, and a smashed pumpkin beside the road.
Of course, lanterns carved from turnips and gourds, domesticated way back 10, 000 years ago, have been used by mankind in many parts of the world. Gourds were used as lanterns in caves by the Maori 700 years ago. I can see how humans would want a portable way to carry light way back in the day. It was a dark and scary place at night. Heck, we still use flashlights and cell phone lights to keep away the dark. In Ireland and Scotland, they often carved grotesque faces to frighten the fairies and spirits away, especially during Samhain, October 31-November 1 when spirits and fairies were particularly active.
The lanterns were used in Somerset on Hallowe’en (Punkie Night) during the 19th century. Some claim Jack-O-Lanterns started with All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Soul’s Day (November 2) to represent Christian souls in purgatory. Christopher Hill wrote that “jack-o’-lanterns were carved of turnips or squashes and were literally used as lanterns to guide guisers (not sure what “guisers” were) on All Hallows’ Eve. (Just a note: you may have noticed there are different was of writing Jack-O-Lantern.) Although is a commonly held belief that the Irish started the tradition of Jack-O-Lanterns, there is no scholar of Irish mythology and customs to support that assumption. However, the folklorist, Jabez Allies wrote, “In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a ‘Hoberdy's Lantern,’ by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style, and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travelers in the night.”
Well, I like the Jack-O-Lantern story making deals with the Devil, and I also enjoy the Americanized version of the pumpkin with a carved face and a candle lit within. As children, my sister and I set the house on fire using a paper mache’ Jack-O-Lantern when the candle that wasn’t supposed to be there burned down and started a fire. Halloween just wouldn’t be the same without that ghoulish grin carved in a pumpkin and an eerie light inside it.
Now for your viewing pleasure, here are some award winning Jack-O-Lanterns over the last few years.
There were many more super-duper pumpkins that won prizes over the last ten years. Fascinating, aren't they? Mine were never this artistic, but they sure have been fun to make, just the same. I hope everyone has a wonderful Halloween with lots of fun and plenty of treats.
Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction. Her stories may be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Prairie Rose Publications. Her website: http://www.sarahmcneal.com