Jack of the Lantern


Today is Halloween, the day when children across the country dig the innards out of and carve faces into hapless pumpkins, dress in costume and roam the neighborhood begging for enough candy to rot teeth and cause bellyaches for a full year. I have many fond—and some not so fond—memories of Halloween. Like the year my brother and I dressed up as Christmas packages. Do you know how hard it is to walk to school in a water heater box covered in wrapping paper and adorned with an enormous bow?

The practice of decorating pumpkins, or jack-o-lanterns is said to have originated in an Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack. Seems Jack convinced the Devil to buy him a drink but didn’t want to pay for it. So he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin. Instead of paying for the drink, Jack slipped the coin into his pocket alongside a cross, candywhich kept the devil from turning back. Jack freed him in exchange for a year of freedom.

When the Devil returned in a year, Jack tricked him into climbing a tree to pick a piece of fruit, then carved a cross into the bark, trapping the dark angel until he promised Jack ten more years of freedom. When Jack died, God didn’t want the trickster in heaven and the Devil had promised not to claim Jack’s soul. According to the legend, the Devil left Jack to roam the countryside with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming ever since. The Irish began to refer to the ghostly wanderer as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack o’ lantern.

Villagers began to carve their own versions of Jack’s lantern intojack-o-lantern turnips or potatoes and placing them in windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. Irish immigrants brought the tradition to America, where the native pumpkin proved a perfect canvas, and it is now an integral part of Halloween festivities.

So, tell me: do you still carve pumpkins for your front porch on Halloween?

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22 thoughts on “Jack of the Lantern”

  1. Interesting, Tracy! I had never heard that story before! That’s pretty fascinating stuff.

    Halloween was always such a good time when I was growing up–getting dressed up in costumes we put together ourselves, and the only thing we ever really bought was the plastic pumpkin that we used year after year. I think they were 29 cents at that time. LOL

    When I was reading about you dressing up as unwieldy Christmas presents, it made me think of that scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout was the ham. LOL Now that my kids are grown and gone, I do enjoy seeing the little ones come to the door all excited and of course, minding their manners (being reminded by their parents!)LOL

    • Cheryl, for all the years we lived in bigger cities, we had very few trick or treaters. Now we help out with the Trunk-or-Treat at our church. Nearly 300 kids in 2 hours–it’s such fun!

  2. An unwieldy Christmas present costume reminds me of the time my mom sent me to a church Halloween party as a pumpkin! Is there a word stronger than “unwieldy” since I had to tip my costume and me sideways to even fit through the door? I think a hula hoop at my middle was involved.

  3. Ever since my 2 girls were very young we’ve had a pumpkin carving party – guests differ from yr to yr but this year we had my mom at 94 and my nephew’s son who is 4 plus other friends and family. My daughters are now 32 and 29 and my oldest daughter hosted the last two years. It’s tradition!!! And my youngest and her boyfriend are artists so we get some great pumpkins!

  4. I haven’t carved a pumpkin since the kids left home, but I can still feel the itchy slimy feeling of the pulp on my wrists when I think about scooping out a pumpkin. I might have to start carving again one of these years.

  5. We finally stopped. We live out in the country and in 24 years we have only had 2 trick or treaters other than our grandson. I really enjoy decorating the house, but that has taken a back seat to the mess renovating and moving people from their homes to nursing homes. Somehow, their excess stuff always ends up here. We really hope to be able to make some progress this November so we can decorate for Christmas.

  6. I love this legend. I enjoy teaching my children old myths and legends behind today’s practices. I especially love Halloween and the ones surrounding it, partly because my birthday is two weeks be before it.

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