31 Days of Ghosts: Jack-O-Lantern
Halloween is a time of ghosts and goblins but also for elaborate decorations.
The one common tradition which has become an artform in modern day is carving a pumpkin (or some other squash like vegetable) and transforming it into a Jack o’lantern. These intricately designed pumpkins have a long history.
While it’s not completely certain where the origin came from, it has been found that the practice was common in the British Isles. Turnips, mangelwurzel or beets were often used, and turnip lanterns often had faces carved into them. This practice was common during the Gaelic festival of Samhain, held from October 31 to November 1, in parts of Ireland and Scotland during the 19th Century. It was often believed that during this time of year sprites and faeries were most active. The lanterns may have had a threefold purpose: first, to light one’s way while outside; second, to represent spirits and other worldly beings; and third, to protect one’s self and one’s home from any ill will.
There is a folktale about these lanterns and it begins with a story of a farmer named Jack. The story is known in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. There are two variations of the story, but in both Jack is met by the Devil, and in both cases Jack manages to trick the Devil. One has Jack running from church going villagers after he stole from them when he encounters the Devil, but convinces him to become a coin to tempt the villagers. The other has Jack convincing the Devil to climb an apple tree. In both cases, Jack uses a cross to strip the Devil of his power. After the Devil gives his word that he will not take Jack’s soul, Jack let’s the Devil go. But seeing how Jack’s life was filled with dishonesty and thievery, his soul was not allowed into Heaven and because of his deal with the Devil, it was also barred from Hell. Satan thus laughed and gave Jack a burning ember which would burn continuously so that Jack might find his way and finally find a place to rest. Jack placed the ember into a carved turnip, his favourite food, and began wandering the world. He would be known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O’lantern.
Today, jack o’lanterns have a more mundane, yet artistic purpose, as some of the most beautiful carvings are put into pumpkins (or other types of squash) and many are put on display in rather garish festivals with prizes being awarded to some of the best carvings.