Halloween: The Jack-o’-Lantern

Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve as it is known by many ancient European countries is something that is celebrated world over. Trick or treaters. Carving pumpkins. Horror movies. All these have the single goal of celebrating the scariest month of the year. This ancient tradition goes all the way back to the Celts who believed that on October 31 the spirits of the dead would return from the Netherworld to walk amongst the living. They dressed up in costumes in an attempt to scare away these apparitions. They believed that by offering gifts of food or decorating their houses with ghastly ornaments they would be able to ward off/appease the spirits. If these offerings were not acceptable or presented the inhabitants of the house would become cursed in various ways. There are other uses these spirits had, but for the purpose of this article I will be having a look at the origins of the Jack-o’-Lantern.

Where did this time-consuming activity first originate. Well, we’ve established above that this was originally Celtic festival. So, who better to know than the Celts?

The Celts never used pumpkins for their Jack-o’-Lanterns, their first Jack-o’-Lantern was used to refer to people. It was only thanks to Irish immigrants that the tradition of using pumpkins came to be practiced as there were no pumpkins in Ireland at the time. Before this came into practice, as far as 1663, Jack-o’-Lanterns referred to a man with a lantern or a night watchmen. A decade later, this came to refer to the mysterious eerie lights spotted over bogs, swamps and marshes at night. These lights came to possess many names jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o’-the-wisps and fool’s-fire. This is a by-product of oxidization when gases from decomposing plant matter comes into contact with heat or electricity.

Stingy Jack

Before this scientific discovery, however, the Irish thought up all manner of tales to explain this phenomena–they called him Stingy Jack. Often depicted as a blacksmith, this infamous character invited the devil for a drink. However Stingy Jack had no intention of paying the bill and managed to convince the devil to turn himself into a gold coin to settle the bill. Again, Jack tricked the devil and skipped out on the bill, putting the devil–along with a silver cross to keep him trapped–inside his pocket.

It did not end here Jack proceeded to trick the devil into another act where the devil had to climb a tree. On both occasions the devil was trapped and Jack made him promise not to seek revenge on his soul. So the devil did not, but instead of being allowed through Heaven’s gates as he intended, God forbade him. Jack was left with neither Heaven nor Hell to return to and so his soul was cursed to walk the earth. The devil, upon rejecting Jack’s entrance to hell, gave him a single coal to light his way. He then sent him off into the dark to find his own hell. He put this coal into a carved out a turnip and now wanders earth with it to this day.

The Irish believed that these eerie lights were Jack’s lantern as his lost soul wandered the countryside.

Where Is It Now?

This tradition has come a long way from the Celts all the way into the heart of the western world. It is only now starting to become a big thing in South Africa. In Britain children would trick their friends into thinking they were Stingy Jack and try and scare them. In Britain, this tradition spread to turnips, beets and potatoes that were carved out and stuffed with coal, wooden embers or candles. This done during their fall festival.

In 1800s America, the children used pumpkins to the same end making them more and more grotesque to increase the scare factor. By the end of the 19th century the Jack-o’-Lantern went from being a trick to being a seasonal decoration.

This practice has become a major holiday in America with thousands of children across the continent celebrating it by trick-or-treating.

I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did researching it. It’s a really fascinating legend.

God bless you all and I trust you will have a blessed day further 🙂

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