The Origin of Halloween Customs and Traditions: The Jack O’Lantern

A traditional Irish Jack-O-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland
A traditional Irish Jack-O-Lantern in the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. This is creepier than any pumpkin-carved Jack-o-Lantern I’ve ever seen.

I’ve written previous blog articles about the origins of the Halloween Witch and the explanation for why October 31st is the time between the worlds. Now, I’d like to address some of the confusion and fun with the origins of various holiday customs surrounding Halloween, starting with the Jack O’Lantern.

First, a bit of history:
Halloween is a modernized expression of an ancient tradition originating in the Celtic festival of Samhain pronounced sow-in (Irish Gaelic), sah-ween (Welsh), or sah-veen (Scotch Gaelic). It is NEVER pronounced sam-hain.

The ancient Celts divided their year into halves, light and dark, or summer and winter. The dark half of the year begins on November 1st. Because the Celts also began their reckoning of time with sunset, and not sunrise, the days begin at sunset of the day before — October 31st is the beginning of Samhain. The end of summer (Samhain’s literal definition) marked the season of darkness and death. In the ancient, iron-age world of the Celts, surviving the winter was challenging. Having enough food, warmth, and health were daily concerns, leaving not only crops and animals to die off, but people as well. This time of the year was recognized as the time of spirits, cold, darkness, and death, and our ancient ancestors lived in close communion and understanding of this balance.

all saints day
Polish memorial for All Saint’s Day

Centuries later, with the coming of Christianity to the Pagan Celts, some of the traditional beliefs blended together. This happened mainly because conversion attempts by the Church were not totally effective in removing all the ingrained folk beliefs of the people. Priests, saints, salvation, Jesus, angels… all of those things were important, but you better not mess with the spirits, ancestors, and faeries, or forget to give them their due recognition.

During this time, the Celtic peoples honored and communed with those that had died, holding to the deeply-rooted belief that the veil between the worlds of Living and Dead was thin and the spirits could visit this world. Because of this, the Church decided to adopt the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” and plucked All Saint’s Day from its place in May —where it was originally matched to the Pagan Roman festival day of Lemuria, Feast of the Lemures, in which the malevolent and restless spirits of the dead were propitiated— to November 1st and renamed it All Saint’s Day, a day to honor the beatified, blessed, or HALLOWED dead. This gave the evening before November 1st (October 31st) the name All Hallow’s Evening, which then became simply Hallowe’en and carried on the Church’s tradition of putting their on stamp onto holidays and religious observances already in place so as to help the people shift their focus to the new religion.

Many of our modern Halloween traditions come from the Christian overlay of this date, not the Pagan roots, like Jack o’Lanterns.

The origin of the Jack O’Lantern — the tale of Stingy Jack Smith:

stingy jack
Stingy Jack leaving Hell with his lantern.

This is an Irish legend thought to have originated in the 17th century (the 1600s)

The story goes that once there was a blacksmith who was not liked in his village. He was known as a drunk, thief, and generally nasty guy. One night, he was out stumbling around and ran into the Devil, who had decided it was time for Jack to be on his way to Hell and was there to escort him. Jack convinced the Devil to have a drink with him before taking this final journey, and the Devil obliged.

They went into the bar and a single drink became a round of drinks, for which Jack said he had no money to pay. He convinced the Devil to turn into a coin to pay for the drinks, because later on he could simply change himself back. The Devil, already prone to shenanigans and apparently none-too-bright when he’s tossed back a few, agreed.

Once the coin was on the counter, Jack slapped his hand down and secreted it away into his pocket, where he kept a crucifix, which was just enough to keep the Devil in his present state while Jack whistled his way out of the bar.
Later on, Jack agreed to release the Devil if he agreed not to bother after Jack’s soul for another year. The Devil accepted Jack’s terms and was released, and didn’t bother him again until a year-and-a-day later when he again accosted the drunk standing beneath an apple tree.

Jack played the Devil again, this time by asking him to climb up and pick an apple for him, the last he was to have before he’d go to hell. Being a softie for a sob-story, and/or forgetting the way he was tricked a year earlier, the Devil climbed the tree. Jack indicated a higher branch with the juiciest apple. The Devil climbed further and Jack then staked his crucifix into the trunk of the tree, making it so that the Devil could not climb down. This time though, Jack said he wanted the Devil to give his word that he would never be taken to Hell. The Devil agreed, and Jack removed the cross so he could climb down.

Not long after that night, Jack died. He went to heaven, but on account of his sinful life and lecherous nature, was turned away. He went to hell, but the Devil smirked and reminded Jack of his promise. So, Jack was doomed to wander, cursed into oblivion between worlds as a restless spirit. The Devil took pity (or joy… hard to tell) and gave Jack a single burning coal to light his way in the enshrouding darkness. Jack carved out a turnip to carry the coal as a lantern. This earned him the nickname Jack of the Lantern, which in time shortened to Jack o’Lantern.
This became a popular part of seasonal traditions in Ireland, and people took to carving root vegetables like turnips and beets into faces and lighting them as a way to ward off Jack, and other restless spirits condemned to purgatory, so that he wouldn’t trouble their homes. Later on, this practice came to America with the influx of Irish immigrants, who found that pumpkins were much easier to carve and so became the popular American version of the Jack O’Lantern.

This is a fun story, and one of my favorites. I remember reading it in a book in my school library in the 2nd grade. I’d like to point out though that it has Christian characters and symbolism, not Pagan ones. The idea of heaven, hell, limbo/purgatory, the Devil, bargaining for your soul, crucifixes and crosses having power over the Devil, etc. are not Pagan concepts. The Jack O’Lantern is a fun part of seasonal festivities, and I love carving them, but they’re not part of Samhain or Pagan tradition; we got this one from the Irish Christians.

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