American History · Ancient History · history

The Legend of the Jack O’Lantern

Happy Halloween everyone!!

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. I love to dress up and be someone else for a day. I love the candy and, most of all, carving pumpkins! Where did these traditions come from? As I wrote in my Druids post the other week, many of these traditions are derived from extremely old sources.

Halloween itself finds its origins in the ancient Celtic/Druid festival of Samhain. The Celts believed that just before winter the barriers between our world and the world of the dead were much thinner than usual. The souls of the dead, it was believed, were able to roam between the worlds as they pleased. In order to avoid unfriendly spirits, the Celts had to complete rituals that protect their homes from these evil ghosts. They would go out and offer the spirit’s gifts to appease them such as food and sweets (sound familiar?). They would build large sacred bonfires and perform blood sacrifices with animals; and proceeded to throw them on the bonfires. They would pray for the sun to reappear again. Dressed up in different animal furs the Celts would have their futures told in order to give them answers to their destinies. Winter was a fearful time for these ancient people as harvests did fail from time to time and it was worrisome that some of their loved ones would not survive the season. These fortunes may have given them some comfort (or possibly more dread).

But what about Jack O Lanterns? Where did they come from? It began as part of an Irish legend which immigrants brought to America. It comes from the tale of “Stingy Jack” who was quite the trickster. He loved to fool the devil. One time the Devil and Jack were having drinks together, but since Jack did not want to pay he forced the Devil to turn into a coin. Instead of paying, he kept the devil coin and put it in his pocket next to a cross (which caused the devil to be unable to turn back). Jack made the Devil promise him that he would let him live for ten more years and would not claim his soul for hell. The Devil did and was let go. Another time Jack kept the Devil in a tree and drew a cross on a branch so he could not come down unless he promised Jack would not die another ten years. When Jack eventually died God did not want his “unsavory” type in heaven and since the Devil promised not to claim him Jack did not go to hell either. Now Jack was sent to roam the darkness with only a burning coal to guide him. Apparently, Jack placed the coal in a carved turnip and now roams for eternity with that light. The people of Ireland spread the tradition of carving various gourds/vegetables in order to ward off Stingy Jack and other unsavory spirits. It was not until this tradition was brought to America that pumpkins (which the growing tradition was adapted from the Native Americans) were used to create these lanterns.

I hope you enjoyed a bit of Halloween history! What traditions does your family do this time of year?

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My carved pumpkins from this year!

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