Jack o’ Lantern
-By Angelique Duncan
The Jack o’ Lantern, not much is recorded in written history about these magnificent icons of Hallow’s eve. Most of what we know of the Jack o’ Lantern comes from oral tradition that has been passed down from the generations. However one could hardly imagine Halloween with out them. Plump, orange and glowing. Sometimes flickering a menacing grin, others with frightful faces and some more welcoming and sincere. For most folks the start of the Halloween season begins with a trip to the market to find that perfect gourd upon which to carve out the face that will be lit and stand guard on their porch or on their window sill for Halloween night.
It is understood that our modern Jacks find their origins from ancient Ireland. It was common practice to light kindling in a carved thick flesh of a beet or turnip as a lantern that could be carried or hung from a stick with twine. The use of the pumpkin for carving Jack o” Lanterns did not arise until the discovery of their native home, the Americas.
The lore associated with Jack o’ Lanterns is akin to The Will of The Wisps and in some traditions are interchangeable in their name. Legends of glowing mystical or spirit lights hovering in bogs and marshes that attract travelers from their intended paths have been attached to the Jack o Lantern.
There are common legends of the Jack o’ Lantern that are similar in their telling’s with slight variances in the story, but with the same outcome. The story goes that a man named Jack, who had spent a sinister existence, was approached by the devil and informed that it was the end of his life and time for the devil to collect his soul to take back to Hell. In these stories Jack is cunning and finds a way to trick the devil so that he cannot take his soul. Some stories tell that Jack tricks the devil with crosses or by manipulating or bartering with the devil into promising that he won’t take him to Hell. In keeping the devils word, he does not collect Jacks soul, however when Jack eventually dies, he cannot enter Heaven either. Jack’s spirit is doomed to wander the earth with only a lump of coal set in a turnip to light his way and keep him warm.
It is said that when one sees a Will o Wisp, it is Jack’s soul wandering. However, legends pertaining to Will of The Wisp predate the stories of wandering or stingy Jack. In some cultures and regions the wisps were thought to be wandering spirits trapped on earth. Others believe they are nymphs or faeries. Some traditions tell that the candles lit in Jack o” Lanterns are the souls of deceased children brought to life on Halloween night.
Although the stories of Jack trapped in the turnip is a popular and accepted tale and where the namesake of the carved pumpkin may come from, the use of carved faces in vegetables on Halloween goes much further back in antiquity to the pre Christianity and Gaelic practices of Samhain. Some historians site that the story of Stingy Jack and other Jack legends may have been modified when Christianity took hold in Ireland to suit a more Christian theme on explaining carved gourds at Halloween.
It was believed that on the night of Samhain, a veil was lifted that allowed the spirits of the dead to re-enter the mortal realm. Beets and turnips were carved with scary faces to ward off evil spirits and unwanted ghost. The lit vegetables would be set around the exterior of ones house and lit with candles or kindling. In some European regions the predecessor to Trick or Treating was guising, in which people would carry carved lit turnips while wearing sheets to scare folks into believing they were ghost so that they would give them food.
When European immigrants came to North America pumpkins were used in place of beets and turnips. The larger fruit with its fleshy shell made for a better carving surface and hollowed easily to hold a light source. The Samhain practice of setting out carved pumpkins on October 31st became hugely popular in the United States, and has been a mainstay of Halloween ever since.
As October descends and Halloween approaches pumpkins will be carved in all manner of faces and set out on porches as effigy to a fella named Jack, ward off evil spirits, respect for children past and serve as a beacon to welcome Trick or Treaters. When you set out your Jack o’ Lantern on this Halloween night with it’s crooked grin and flickering eyes know that you are carrying on a ancient custom that has survived many a century and that yours will be among thousands of Jack o’ Lanterns lit adding to the magic of Halloween.
Happy Halloween! Keep your Jack o’ Lantern lit in solidarity!
Images “The Great Pumpkin of Sincerity” and “Great Pumpkin & His Cult” Copyright Michelle Angelique Duncan
Angelique Duncan is proprietor of Twilight Faerie Nostalgic and Capricious Objects. Check out her artist page to find links to her shops and vintage inspired traditional holiday art. Visit again next month for more traditions and folklore.