Sunday, October 10, 2010

Origin of the Jack-o-Lantern in Irish Myth - 21 Days till Halloween

One of the easiest to recognize and longest lasting symbols of modern Halloween is a jack-o-lantern, a pumpkin which has been hollowed out, had a face carved on one side and a candle placed inside to give off an eerie glow. While this tradition is religiously followed by millions every year, the origin of this icon has alluded many.

The practice of carving jack-o-lanterns has been around for centuries, though it has not always been associated with Halloween. It origins is steeped in an Irish myth about a man who was nicknamed Stingy Jack, who played a trick on the Devil, of which there are several variations of the trick played. One of which features Jack tricking the Devil to turn into a coin to pay for a night of drinks and then placing the coin in his pocket next to a cross preventing the Devil from changing back. Another features Jack asking the Devil to climb a tree to grab some fruit, then placing crosses around the tree preventing the Devil from climing down. Though the trick is different from story to story, the resolution is always the same, in which Jack only releases the Devil after promising not to claim his soul when he dies.

The legend continues that when Jack finally does die, God does not allow Jack into heaven for all the tricks and misery he has caused during his life. True to his word, the Devil does not claim Jack's soul and refuses his entry into Hell. Instead, he sends Jack back off into the dark night with only a burning ember from the pits of Hell to light his path. Jack carves out a turnip and places the coal inside to light his way as he roams the Earth for eternity looking for a resting place. The Irish began to refer to this doomed figure as "Jack of the Lantern," which eventually morphed into "Jack O'Lantern."

Throughout Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack's lantern by hollowing out turnips or potatoes, carving scary faces onto them and placing them into windows or near doors to scare away Stingy Jack and any other evil spirits wandering around. Irish immigrants came to the United States in the mid 1800s they brought the jack-o-lantern tradition with them. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to North America, made for much better jack-o-lanterns and adopted them as their lantern of choice.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the jack-o-lantern became adopted first into Thanksgiving and fall harvest festivals, and then into Halloween festivities which had morphed from their pagan origins into a community celebration.

21 days till Halloween...


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