Monday, October 3, 2011

Lovely Frankenstein's 31 Days of Halloween: Origin of the Jack o' Lantern

The Jack o' Lantern is one of the most iconic images associated with Halloween, and it is one of the things that "it just isn't Halloween" without. There is just something gratifying as a kid (of any age) about scooping out the slimy pumpkin guts and carving out a glowing face. Who am I kidding...I still love it (duh)! Now as a "grown up" my pumpkins have gone from triangle-eyed faces to grimacing ghouls and Halloween scenes. We take Jack o' Lanterns for granted as a symbol for Halloween, but where did they come from, and why on earth do we cut holes in an oversized gourd for just for late October kicks?

Well, the term "Jack o' Lantern" was orginally used to describe a night watchman carry a lantern, with the earliest known use of the term popping up East Anglia in the mid 1600s. This soon became a more general term for any man carry a lantern at night. Outside of East Anglia, the term became synonymous with Will o' the Wisp phenomena (left).  

So where does the carving aspect of the Jack o' Lantern tradition come from? Well, there are many different tellings of the story from cultures all over the world, but the one most often associated with western Halloween traditions is that of Stingy Jack. As with any oral tradition, there are many variations told on the story, but the most commonly told version is as follows:

Stingy Jack was a miserable, old drunk who liked to play malicious tricks on everyone he knew: family, friends, and strangers alike. One day Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen. As he ran, he met the Devil who claimed it was his time to die and that he had come for his soul. Despite his age and constant drunkeness, Jack was a clever man and thought of a way to stall his death and therefore his trip to Hell. He tempting the Devil himself with a chance to trick the church-going villagers chasing him into granting him their souls - giving the Devil more souls to drag to Hell than just his own. Knowing the Devil could take any shape he chose, he told the Devil to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods, and then the Devil could take his form back after the debt had been paid. When the coin disappeared after the Devil took his original form, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it, and by accepting the Devil as payment they implied the promise of their souls to him. The Devil, eager to take more souls with him, agreed to Jack's plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack's wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also stolen from the villagers. Before the Devil could change his form to punish Jack for tricking him, Jack had closed the wallet tight.The holy cross stripped the Devil of his powers and so he was trapped, the Devil himself subject to Jack's decision to end the trick.
After much argument, Stingy Jack conceded to end the trick and free the Devil, but on one condition:  Devil must promise him not to take his soul to Hell when he died. Begrudgingly, the Devil promised not to take his soul and so Jack stayed good to his word, removed the holy cross and let the Devil out to return to Hell without him.
Many years later, Jack finally succumbed to old age and hard living and passed away with little sorrow from the village and his family. He went to the gates of Heaven and demanded entry. Saint Peter rejected his demands, and said that he was far too mean and cruel, and had led a miserable and worthless life on Earth without repentence and was therefore unfit to enter the kingdom of God. Jack turned around and journeyed down to Hell to meet with the Devil that he had tricked so many years ago. Jack demanded that he be let in to Hell after being rejected from Heaven, but the Devil kept his promise and would not allow him to enter Hell.
Having been rejected from both Heaven and Hell, Jack was scared and had nowhere to go but to wander  for the rest of eternity through the darkness between Heaven and Hell. frustrated and destitute, he asked the Devil how he could leave Hell too, as there was no light for him to find his way by. The Devil laughed at his misfortune, and mockingly tossed him a single ember from the flames of Hell to help him light his way. Taking pity on Jack's soul, God gave him a hollowed out turnip in which to carry the single ember. From that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the Earth without a resting place, unwelcome in Heaven and in Hell, lighting his way with his eternally glowing turnip and was known as "Jack of the Lantern" - Jack o' Lantern. 

Replicating the story of Stingy Jack, young men started carving turnips and pumpkins to scare travellers into thinking they had met Jack of the Lantern. Children carried the craved gourds to represent the trapped souls of loved ones in Purgatory on All Saints Day and All Souls Day. From there it became a tradition to carve and light the gourds and over the years it became less religious and mischievous and more decorative and indicative of Halloween.

So there we have it! The origins of the Jack o' Lantern. Pretty neat, huh?

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