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  • Writer's pictureKrista Jain

Folklore Spotlight: Jack-O'-Lanterns

Have you ever wondered why Jack-O’-Lanterns exist? Why do we carve faces into pumpkins, and why do we do it for Halloween? As you already may know, I’m a sucker for folklore, and Jack-O’-Lanterns belong to one of my favorite types of folklore. The origin story of carving spooky faces in pumpkins belongs in Irish folklore.

Before we start looking into pumpkins, we need to understand more about the origins of Halloween to make sense of it. The Celts were the first ones to celebrate what was then called Samhain. (Pronounced Sow-in.) To them, this was the death of Summer. The times of harvest were over for this year, which meant the long foreboding Winter was arriving. The Celts believed Summer symbolized life while Winter symbolized death. And so it was on this day of transitioning, October 31st, they believed the dead and the living could mingle together. Of course, that also meant evil spirits would also come back from the dead. People wore masks and costumes in celebration and to keep evil spirits at bay. I think it's a brilliant idea! If you have evil spirits lurking around, either have them think you're one of them or scare them off with a face that's more frightening than theirs!

The origin story for Jack-O'-Lanterns didn't have anything to do with Halloween at first. The name refers to a character named Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was once a man who invited the Devil for a drink, but he had no intention of paying once at the bar. He then had a brilliant idea beyond paying for the drinks. He convinced the Devil to turn into a gold coin. The Devil obliged, but Stingy Jack was true to his name and skipped out from paying the bill. Instead, he hid the coin in a pocket next to a silver cross. The cross prevented the Devil to change form again, and he was stuck until Jack let him out. Stingy Jack eventually freed the Devil on a promise the Devil won't take his soul for some years to come.

Those years came and gone. Time was running out. Stingy Jack had to trick the Devil again to freshen the promise he made. Upon finding the Devil, he asked him to climb a nearby tree and pick fruit. Gullible, the Deviled obeyed again and climbed the tree, but then Stingy Jack carved a cross into the bark, which again, trapped the Devil from coming down. This time, he forced the Devil to promise he would never take Stingy Jack's soul when he died. The Devil agreed and Jack freed him from the tree.

Stingy Jack continued to live a rotten life until he finally passed away, but God wouldn't allow him into Heaven, saying he was too wicked. Jack turned to Hell, but the Devil declared the promise he made and refused him. Jack's spirit was caught between both realms and forced to wander ours for eternity with nothing but a burning piece of coal the Devil gave him for light. Stingy Jack placed it in a carved turnip, which gave him the name, Jack-of-the-Lantern, or Jack-O'-Lantern for short. See? There it makes sense!

People believed they saw his light in the marshes, which also became the myth of the Will-O'-The-Wisp. To remember the tale, people began carving lanterns out of turnips, beets, potatoes, and other root vegetables. They didn't start carving spooky faces until they tried to scare Stingy Jack away from their homes when he came back with the other evil spirits on Hallowe- oh, I mean Samhain.

The Irish carried the tradition of spooky carved vegetables to America where they discovered pumpkins were the perfect shape to switch to. Obviously, pumpkins became the popular choice and now Jack-O'-Lanterns are recognized all around the world for being a fun Halloween tradition and decoration. So when you carve your pumpkin into a Jack-O'-Lantern this year, remember he will protect your home from harm and scare away evil spirits from tricking your household. Happy Halloween...!

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