October Reflections: Smiling Jack

What’s Halloween without a pumpkin carved with crooked teeth and triangle eyes. The visage of the Jack O Lantern adorns doorsteps, windows and homes everywhere during the month of October.  How odd that a Halloween staple is a gutted and slowly decaying gourd made up with a grinning face.  Well, when I put it that way, maybe not so odd.  What are the origins of this bizarre ritual?

Halloween is the one night of the year when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is said to be at its thinnest.  An ideal time to play with Ouija boards, conduct seances and try to commune with the dead but what is Jack’s role in the holiday? There is a lot of folklore associated with how and why the Jack O Lantern is carved and lit up every year at the end of October, so let’s look at the most common story.

The legend of Stingy Jack tells the tale of a drunkard who tricked the Devil not once but twice.  He must have been one hell of a fella to pull that off. Not only did he trick the big D into turning into a coin and keeping him that way with a cross in his pocket, but he also tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to get fruit (WTF does the Devil want with fruit anyway), then trapped him up there by carving a cross into the tree.  Jack would let the Devil go (both times) only after he promised to leave Jack alone for a year, then ten years and if the Devil also promised not to claim his soul when died.  It wasn’t long before Jack did die and Heaven would not let him in because of his unsavory and deceitful nature and Hell, well the Devil wouldn’t even take him after what he did.  So poor Stingy Jack was turned away by the Devil with nothing but a burning coal to light his way eternally through the dark nights.  I’m guessing out of convenience and because a coal would be hot, Jack kept his flame in a hollowed out turnip.  As the legend states, the tradition of hollowing out and carving grinning faces on gourds (not just pumpkins) spread throughout Ireland and Scotland with people putting them in windows to ward off Stingy Jack and other spirits. Immigrants from the UK brought these traditions with them to North America and the ritual continues to be apart of our annual holiday.

The term Jack O Lantern is also another name for the creepy appearance of ghostly lights over swamps and marshes more commonly called Ignis fatuus or Will-o’-Wisp.  There are many tales of how the lights lead travelers to their doom, tricking them with the hope of finding a path in the darkness but ultimately leading them to death.  Some legends even call these lights fairies.  Not too sure where the gourds come in with these legends.

So there is a brief look at the Jack O Lantern.  Now get your pumpkins and start carving.

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