Halloween is a modern yearly tradition, but its roots actually go back thousands of years to the old Celtic traditions of Samhain. This was a time of celebration, from sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1, marking the beginning of the “darker half” of the year and the end of the harvest season.
But it was also a time when the delicate boundaries separating our world from the spirit world were thought to bend.
Over time, the traditions evolved. People would dress up in costumes to disguise themselves from wandering spirits, and travel door to door. They’d receive treats for singing songs or telling jokes, an act known as guising. They’d perform rituals and hold feasts, with places set at the table for deceased loved ones in case they returned.
While the true origin of the Jack O’ Lantern is a bit muddy, it’s also said that people would put burning coals into carved turnips or potatoes. They’d use these as lanterns to guide them while out guising, or place them by their windows or outside doors to ward off evil spirits. This tradition, along with guising (that is, trick-or-treating), has stayed with us to this day, albeit with different meanings.
What about the pumpkins? Truth is, pumpkins are native to North America. When the Irish emigrated to America during the potato famine, they brought with them their old traditions, and found that pumpkins were much easier to carve than turnips. Hence our modern Halloween pumpkin carving.
Here’s what a turnip Jack O’ Lantern looks like:
The origin of the name Jack O’ Lantern, by the way, is possibly related to a 19th-century Irish folktale about a man named Stingy Jack and his three fateful encounters with the Devil…
The Legend of Stingy Jack
A long time ago in Ireland, there lived a man called Stingy Jack. He was the town drunkard, you could say. He lied, he cheated, he stole. He played tricks. No one liked him. Every night, without exception, he’d walk down to the local pub and drink until morning.
One night while on his way to the pub, Jack came upon a grotesque body lying on the ground. It turned out to be the Devil, who had come to collect Jack’s soul.
Mortified, Jack did the only thing he could think of: he asked for one final drink.
The Devil agreed. They walked down to the pub and Jack ordered a round of ale. When he was finished, he turned to the Devil and asked him to pay the tab. Bemused by Jack’s unexpected request, the Devil transmogrified himself into a sixpence, with which Jack could pay the bartender. But Jack didn’t pay.
Instead, he placed the sixpence into his pocket, where he also kept a crucifix.
The Devil was trapped. The crucifix prevented him from changing back into his original form, and he was stuck as a useless coin in Stingy Jack’s pocket.
At that point, Jack made a wager. He’d let the Devil out of his pocket, but only if he spared his soul for another ten years. The Devil reluctantly agreed.
* * *
Ten years passed, and Jack was out walking alone. Once again, he came across a body on the ground. It was the Devil, returning to collect Jack’s soul as they had agreed. At first, Jack seemed resigned to his fate, but to the Devil’s surprise, he again asked for one final request.
One last taste of an apple from an apple tree.
The Devil agreed, and began to climb up a nearby apple tree to retrieve an apple. But while he did so, Stingy Jack carved a cross into the tree’s bark. Once again, the Devil found himself stuck, unable to climb back down due to the power of the cross.
Jack, ever the trickster, offered another bargain: he’d help the Devil down from the tree, so long as his soul would never be taken into Hell. The Devil, frustrated, agreed.
* * *
Several more years passed, and Stingy Jack, after a sorry life of drinking and tricks, died alone in his bed.
His soul, released from his body, wandered to the gates of Heaven, where he was turned away for his life’s nefarious deeds. Jack, dejected, then made his way to the gates of Hell. The Devil, however, kept his side of the bargain, and also turned him away.
Jack was terrified. Was he doomed to wander the darkness alone for all eternity? Perhaps the Devil felt sorry for him in that final moment, because he tossed Jack a single burning ember to help light his way.
Jack found a turnip, hollowed it out, and placed the ember inside, creating a makeshift lantern to guide him through the netherworld.
To this day, they say he still wanders, but he goes by a different name.
Jack of the Lantern.