Hallowe'en - What's with Jack O'Lanterns?

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As a spiritualist, Hallowe’en is my favorite season, next to Christmas. I love it because everyone is thinking about or trying to or at least curious about communicating with the spirit realm.

Hallowe’en can be traced back thousands of years. For a bit more on that, you can read this post.

The way people in the United States celebrate Hallowe’en these days is a combination of spiritual and secular stuff. I think it’s cool. I love that people who might not normally think about ‘the other side’, do so at last once a year because it includes a fun party. It’s a perfect opportunity to express things about ourselves that we might not be comfortable doing throughout the rest of the year, and that is always a chance for spiritual growth, even if we don’t think of it that way.

So, one of the icons of contemporary American Hallowe’en is the pumpkin Jack O’Lantern. Here’s the history of it, so you can engage that hottie at the Hallowe’en party.

Will O’the wisp, fool’s fire, fairy lights, corpse candles - some of the names and explanations that are given to the wispy flames that appear above the peat bogs in Britain.

And some people - very unromantically - refer to is as swamp gas.

In my favorite stories, night time travelers are lured out into the bogs by these flickering flames and of course, misadventure befalls them or their family.

But the story of Jack O’Lantern is a bit different. This story comes from the 1500s Ireland.

OK, so Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. (Because that’s what Irish people do - drink with the Devil!)

Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for the drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy them with.

The Devil agreed. (Because the Irish are brave and clever tricksters with the gift of the gab.)

Once the Devil turned himself into a coin, Jack put it into his pocket next to his silver cross. The cross, of course, trapped the Devil in the coin.

Jack eventually freed the Devil, making him promise not to bother Jack for one year and not claim his soul upon death. So far so good.

After the year was up, the Devil came back around and this time, Jack tricked him into climbing up a tree to pick a piece of fruit.

While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk of the tree. Jack let the Devil down once he promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. And again, not to claim his soul upon death.

When Jack died, he was not allowed into Heaven and the Devil would not allow him into Hell.

The Devil sent Jack away to find his own Hell - with just one burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip (which was the standard lighting of the time) and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. Jack, of the lantern.

The story of Stingy Jack evolved so that he became a very nasty and scary character - and people would carve faces on turnips, beets, potatoes and so on and place an ember inside and leave them in the window to scare him (and other nasty spirits) away.

When this story made its way to the Americas with the British immigrants, pumpkins were found to be perfect (easier to carve) for this purpose and the carved pumpkin itself became known as a jack o'lantern.

We can see the pumpkin jack o’lantern hit the mainstream in 1824, when the wife of the Mayor of Atlanta placed them in the window for their Hallowe’en party.

And then, one of the most wonderfully creepy of Hallowe’en stories - the Legend of Sleepy Hollow - was written by Washington Irving in 1892. And we were given the headless horseman (based on a character from the 1500s) with a Jack o’lantern head. Oooh shivers!

In the American story, the Headless Horseman pursues Ichabod Crane and the next morning the only trace of him is his hat - next to a smashed pumpkin.

Check out these modern renditions….

The ballad of Stingy Jack (animation)

Stingy Jack (movie trailer)

The Ballad of Stingy Jack (song)

How the headless horseman became headless (from the movie, Sleepy Hollow)

Ichabod and the headless horseman (Disney animation)