Brief History of the Jack O’ Lantern

By ESanders (WMF)Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Tonight is officially Halloween of 2017. That means trick-or-treat for the kids, pranks for the juveniles, costume parties for the adults, and of course, the lighting of the carved-up pumpkin. But how did the “Jack-o-Lantern”, become such a traditional part of all this?

Halloween, a deviation of “Hallowed Evening”, culminated from several sources, primarily European in origin. As autumn marks the time of year for the reaping of crops planted in the spring, many traditions are derived from the harvest. Shocks of corn, baskets of gourds, wreaths of vines, and bales of straw, all symbolize the season.

In ancient times, appreciation of the abundance of renewed sustenance was given to the gods, which before Christianity, consisted of forms of pagan deities like those of the Romans, Gauls, Celts and Druids. Over the centuries, the various celebrations of the harvest season melded into what we now know as Halloween and Thanksgiving.

As Christianity began to dominate the western world, many of the ancient pagan traditions were replaced with Catholic versions of them. As autumn was believed to be a time of thin barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead, the Catholic Church devoted November 1st as All Soul’s Day in recognition of the dead returning to revisit loved ones who still live and November 2nd as All Saint’s Day to honor Christian martyrs. Eventually, the ancient Gaelic holiday of Samhain celebrating the end of the autumn harvest and the beginning of the winter season, merged with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day to form the October 31st festival that we revel in today.

As “hallowed” is an adjective used for things sacred, the term “hallowed evening” was coined on the eve before the holiday celebrating the souls of the consecrated and sanctified. Thus, Halloween came to be not only a celebration of the nurturing of life for the living but a vigil for the dead as well.

The Irish traditionally carved turnips and potatoes to ward off evil spirits during the season, but upon arriving the New World, found the abundant variety of gourds, especially the pumpkin, to be far better suited for the ritual.

As for the name Jack, as in Jack o’ lantern, an old Irish legend describes how a sly, mischievous, drunk made a deal with the devil but reneged on his obligation. The result of his double-dealing with the devil ensured that Jack didn’t have an eternal place in either heaven or hell, so his soul roams the countryside with his passage during the nights lit by a single “coal”, which he acquired from the devil, carried in a carved out turnip.

The old Irish story of “Stingy Jack” is strangely similar to old English tales of a man named William, or “Billy”, whose spirit walks the marshlands at night guided by the light of a burning set of branches and twigs, or “wisps”, hence the term “Will o’ the wisps” to explain the mysterious “phantom lights” rising from swamps at dark. Phosphorus gas produced by decomposing biological organisms rising from under the surface when it cools are the probable scientific explanation for the phenomenon, but then, how fun is that?

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