Halloween is fast approaching and the Jack O’Lanterns are everywhere! It’s amazing to me how this holiday has grown from a simple childhood prank to the huge retail and celebratory event it is today.
The most iconic image associated with Halloween is, of course, the Jack O’Lantern. But, did you know how these sometimes simple, sometimes elaborately carved pumpkins became associated with the holy day of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween as it is known today? There are many holidays in which religion seems to have collided with pagan symbols or icons to come together as one. What does the Easter bunny, eggs and baskets have to do with the resurrection of Christ? What does a tree adorned with lights have to do with his birth? I find the marriage of these iconic images fascinating.
So how did an illuminated, carved pumpkin become associated with the celebration of Halloween? It’s a long story, let’s start with All Hallow’s Eve …
Many of our holidays originated back when people celebrated the most important event of their life, the harvest. For Americans, Thanksgiving is the biggest ‘harvest holiday’ celebration. But in Argentina in February, it is the blessing of the grapes. In June Bali celebrates the blessing of the rice harvest and in Greece it is the blessing of the sea. For the Celts who lived in Ireland 2,500 years ago, it was November 1st, their New Year, or the Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’). Not only did this day mark the official day of ‘harvest’ it signaled the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.
The shorter days and long, dark nights were eerie and forboding to the Celts, and often associated with death. They believed that on the “eve” before the new year, the line between both worlds opened up and the ghosts of the dead would return to earth. These ghosts would cause chaos, destroying crops and endangering the harvest. To ensure the safety of the harvest, the night before the New Year, Celtic priests, the Druids, would build bonfires and make sacrifices to the Gods. The villagers would often wear animal heads and skins, dance and tell fortunes to ward off the evil spirits.
Meanwhile, in Rome many years later, Pope Boniface IV established the feast of ‘All Martyr’s Day’ on May 13th to honor all Christian martyrs. Later Pope Gregory III expanded this festival to include not only martyrs but saints as well and he moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st. Hmmm, have we not heard that date before? With Christianity spreading throughout the Celtic lands, it wasn’t long before the church attempted to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a church-approved holiday. As has happened throughout history, the Christian holiday (‘holy day’) eventually merged with the Pagan celebration, with bonfires, parades, and dressing up as saints, angels or devils.
But, wait! How does a carved pumpkin fit into all this?
Celtic legend says that a very, very frugal man, ‘stingy’ you might say, used to frequent the pubs in his Irish village, but when it came time to pay for his pint, he always had a convenient excuse for not being able to pay up. Yes, his name was “Jack”. One evening stingy ol’ Jack tricked the devil himself into paying his tab in exchange for Jack’s soul. But when the devil demanded his payoff, Jack reneged and before the devil could do anything about it, Jack died.
Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven … and the devil wouldn’t allow him to enter hell. His soul was cast out into the night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the burning coal inside … left to wander the earth alone, especially on All Hallow’s Eve.
To honor Jack, the Celts hollowed out turnips and created their own lanterns … the ‘Jack of the Lantern’. And when the people, often children, would go door-to-door during All Hallow’s Eve to pray for the dead and, hopefully, be paid with soul cakes, they would carry their carved Jack O’Lanterns to light the way.
Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather’s bad.
You may learn otherwise about the origin and history of the Jack O’Lantern, but how could you not love this legend. Although carved gourds have been used in many countries around the world, the Irish are credited with creating these ghoulish creatures, used primarily to ward off harmful spirits. When the Irish emigrated to the New World, they brought the tradition with them, eventually replacing turnips with Pumpkins.
Happy Halloween everyone!