How a Drunk and the Devil Shaped Our Most Iconic Halloween Symbol

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I’m taking a break from NaNoWriMo preparations to enjoy the holiday. We slammed some Halloween fun and a birthday celebration into the last couple of days. The weekend festivities ended with the traditional carving of the pumpkins.

You are likely aware that most Halloween traditions have roots in the Celtic holiday of Samhain which marked the end of summer and final harvest time. It was also a period when supernatural forces were particularly active. On this night the door to the spirit world opened and spirits were allowed to freely roam the Earth. To keep evil spirits away, raging bonfires were lit.

In the middle-ages the festival morphed into All Hallows Eve. Eventually the bonfires were toned down to hallowed out gourds and turnip lanterns. When Irish immigrants came to America they found that the native pumpkin was a superior way to create these lanterns. Ta-dah, the jack-o-lantern was born.

You might not believe this looking at my profile picture but my Pop is pure Scotch/Irish with the surname to prove it! There is an Irish folktale that tells a much more interesting story about how jack-o-lanterns came to be.

Stingy-Jack forever doomed to roam the Earth.

Stingy-Jack forever doomed to roam the Earth.

There once was a man named Stingy-Jack. He liked to drink, hang out at the pub, mooch off of everybody for drinks, and to play tricks on them because he fancied himself so much smarter than they. He wasn’t an especially likable fellow. So much so, that one Hallows Eve he found himself face to face with the Devil.

Stingy-Jack was sure he could outsmart the Devil, so he offered his soul in exchange for a drink. The Devil quickly changed himself into a coin to pay for the drink. He didn’t know that Stingy-Jack had already mooched a coin from another patron to pay for the drink. He snatched up the coin and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross that he always carried. Because of the cross, the Devil could not change into his real form and was trapped as a coin. Stingy-Jack refused to free the Devil until he promised not to claim his soul for ten years. The Devil agreed and Stingy-Jack released him.

Fast forward ten years. Stingy-Jack was walking along a darkened country road when the Devil came to collect what was due to him. Again, Stingy-Jack used his tricky ways. He told the Devil he would go but could the Devil please climb the tree and get him an apple first?

For whatever reason, the Devil went up the tree to get the apple and Jack quickly etched a cross on the trunk. The Devil now could not climb down from the tree. Jack made the Devil promise not to collect his soul now or when he eventually died. The Devil was furious but had no choice other than to agree.

Several years later Jack passed-away. He presented himself to the gates of heaven but was told he could not enter because of his deceitful, drunken life. He then presented himself to hell. The Devil remembered the promise he had made and refused him entrance. Instead, he was banished to roam the Earth forever with only a turnip lantern to light his way. This doomed ghostly figure was referred to as Jack of the Lantern and eventually Jack O’Lantern. In Ireland and Scotland people began placing their own version of Jack’s lantern in windows and doorways to keep evil spirits at bay.

As you carve your own jack-o-lanterns keep poor Stingy-Jack in mind. I think he actually got it easy compared to an eternity in hell!

My Family's Creations this Halloween.

My Family’s Creations this Halloween.

Until next time, Never Turn Off the Lights!

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