Wednesday, September 30, 2009

History of Halloween, Part One: Jack o’lanterns

Dear Readers,

I’ve found many different perspectives on Halloween, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, Samhain, and All Souls Day. Having said that, I know somewhere along the line in this series of ‘History of Halloween’ posts, I won’t be accurate to every perspective and belief, so I’ve taken some liberty.

Out of the zillions of pages sitting in front of me right now, there was one particular story that stuck with me through the research. How many of you have ever seen a Jack o’lantern sitting on a porch Halloween night? Did you ever wonder why or how we’d ever come up with such an idea?

There are two roots to this practice I’ve found. In the first, the early Pagan Celtics hallowed out turnips, gourds or rutabagas to hold an ember from the sacred bonfire (actually it was called a bone-fire, but that’s a whole other story entirely). Then they would take these precious flickers of the grander flame to their own homes, and light their own fires.

The second was about an Irishman named ‘Stingy Jack’, who was said to be a swindler and a drunk. The devil himself stalked Jack for his soul, but the Irishman would have none of it. The first year of this predicament, Jack asked his tormentor to share a drink, but tricked him into becoming a coin to pay for it. Slipping the unassuming coin into his pocket right next to a cross, the nuisance was effectively trapped. He forced a promise from Lucifer. Either agree to leave him alone for another year, or in his pocket he would stay.

When the time came for the devil to return, Jack talks him into going up a tree to retrieve a piece of fruit. While up there, the clever Irishman carves a cross on the trunk to trap the devil, again. To get down, he must make yet another promise. But this time it isn’t just a year. Lucifer must agree not to seek his soul for ten years. What other choice was there, if an eternity in a tree didn’t appeal to him?

No matter the witty tricks he’d played, when Jack died before the deal had ended, none of it did a lick of good. Because of the same attributes that attracted Lucifer to him in the first place, the Irishman couldn’t get into heaven, and because of the promise, he couldn't get into hell either.

For whatever his reasons were, the devil sympathized with Jack and gave him an ember held within a hallowed out turnip to light his way through his forever-roamings on earth. He was just as trapped like devil had been in his pocket and in the tree. (I also read the devil sent him out into the world with nothing more than a piece of burning coal, that Jack placed in a carved turnip.)

In fear of him and the other wandering ghosts, the Irish and Scottish made Jack o’lanterns during the season to scare them away. In the mid 1800’s, when the potato famine struck Ireland and the people came to the North America, they brought such Halloween traditions with them.

Turnips were phased out in America, when it was found pumpkins were plentiful in the New World. They became the new face of the custom.

Until Next Time…

Kayden McLeod


Trent Kinsey said...

That was very interesting. And to think this whole time I thought they acted like gargoyles and were meant only to scare away evil spirits.

Kayden McLeod said...

I'm not sure about the gargyoles, lol, but they dressed in costumes to both celebrate their dead, and to hide from the spirits that would bother them...but my next post is Samhain, and it might get a little more into that.