Jack O’Lantern Was an Irish Lad
Summer is gone. The gate standing at the dark half of the year swings wide on the Festival of Samhain, The Eve of All Hallows… Halloween.
All Hallows Eve wasn’t celebrated in America until the arrival of Famine-era Irish in the 19th century. The theme of the season and many of the traditions associated with our modern Halloween originated centuries before on the Hill of Ward (Tlachtga) in County Meath, just northwest of the legendary Hill of Tara. Not the least of these Irish traditions is our beloved Jack O’Lantern.
Originally, Samhain lanterns were made from a turnip, potato or rutabaga as those were the vegetables at hand in the Celtic regions. These pale root vegetables were more naturally shaped like a human skull and gave off an eerie yellow glow when a candle burned inside. They were carved with faces, a reminder of the early Celts’ veneration of the head, which they believed to be the seat of the soul. The lanterns were meant to be scary, though the light they contained was intended to keep evil at bay. As with all fire kindled during a liminal time, even the small candle flame illuminating these carved heads was meaningful.
It was the Irish fable of “Stingy Jack” that gave rise to the name. Jack was especially cheeky as well as stingy and was apparently a personal acquaintance of the Devil, himself. In fact, Jack invited the Devil to have a drink, but (not surprisingly) didn’t want to pay the tab. He convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to buy the drinks, but then Jack decided to keep the coin. He placed it in his pocket, next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from turning himself back until Jack made him promise to leave him alone for one year and that if Jack should die, the Devil would not claim his soul.
After a year, Jack tricked the Devil again by convincing him to climb a tree. Jack carved a cross in the bark of the tree, preventing the Devil from climbing back down. This time, Jack made the Devil promise to leave him alone for ten years. But soon after, Jack died. There was no place in heaven for a character like Jack. The Devil was so upset about being tricked by Jack that he actually kept his word and turned Jack away from Hell; giving him only a burning coal by which Jack could find his way as he wondered through darkness for eternity. Jack eventually put the coal in a homemade lantern and became known as Jack of the Lantern or Jack O’Lantern.
When Irish emigrants arrived in America, they discovered a new vegetable for their lanterns – the pumpkin! Ole Jackie got a makeover and hasn’t looked the same since. Now everyone is in on making a Jack O’Lantern. Have you carved your pumpkin yet? Be sure to bring the lads and lasses by The Celtic Ranch before 5:00 pm on October 31 and they’ll get a sweet treat to put in their pumpkins. No tricks – we promise!
Wrangler of Cultural Affairs