01 November 2009

Samhain: The Tale of Stingy Jack

Last evening I was asked about the origin of pumpkin carving, or the jack-o-lantern. The tradition originally is traced to the Irish harvest celebration of Samhain. A celebration of summer's end and the approach of winter, as well as the remembrance of ancestors lost. Vegetable lanterns were lit along roads and in front of homes in order to guide the spirits home again.

The Irish folktale of Stingy Jack originates the name jack-o-lantern of Jack of the Lantern. The story goes that Jack, a thief, stole from the village people and was chased out of town by the citizens who wished to regain their stolen goods. On his way out of town, Jack encounters the Devil who is there to take his soul. In order to stall the Devil, cunning Jack proposes the Devil trick the townspeople. As the Devil is known as a great trickster and deceiver, the Devil, who can shift into any figure, changes into a silver coin that Jack can give the townspeople for retribution of the stolen goods. Jack puts the silver coin in his pocket, not telling the Devil that he has a crucifix in his pocket. The crucifix then strips the power of the Devil. The Devil then makes a deal with Jack, that if he releases him than he promises that he will never take his soul to Hell.

Of course, as Jack is mortal, he dies eventually, but as a sinful thief he cannot enter Heaven, nor as the Devil promised not enter Hell. The Devil amused by the trick he played on Jack, throws him an ember from Hell to light his way through the dark world, which he must wander for eternity. Jack carves out a vegetable, placing the light within to guide his way through the earth. He is eternally known as Jack of the Lantern. Another rendition of the tale describes the Devil taking Jack's head and in return gives him a carved pumpkin as a head. This ending either comes from the tale of the Headless Horseman, or an inspiration for the tale of the said horseman (which version/story came first is hard to say).

Although pumpkin carving has been practiced for centuries, it hasn't become part of the Halloween traditions until the 19th century in North America. There is no primary documents saying as much, but there is evidence that the jack-o-lantern began showing up in Halloween festivities in 1866. In an Ontario newspaper on this day in 1866, the reporter mentions pumpkin faces: "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle." Historian David Skal in Death Makes a Holiday, writes,
Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honored component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation. In fact, none of the major nineteenth-century chronicles of British holidays and folk customs make any mention whatsoever of carved lanterns in connection with Halloween. Neither do any of the standard works of the early twentieth century.
Of course, the Catholics, in order for conversion sake, molded many traditional pagan holidays into religious holidays, there for All Hallows Eve and All Hallows, became All Saints Eve and All Saints Day. This is one reason why you can easily find the dressing up of Devils, Angels, Ghosts, and traditional Saints at your door trick or treating.

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