You see them each year, you carve them, and maybe you even grow pumpkins just for this special purpose but do you know the history of this common and culturally significant icon? Read on to find out the history behind the cherished fall icon.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 28, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
It is a messy joy to the eyes of every child, the carving of the pumpkin for Halloween. Picking out the perfect pumpkin, and getting the wonderful joy home in one piece. Then cutting off the top and digging out those wonderful seeds covered in that goo that clings to everything, especially under the fingernails of wonderful children. After this, you get to cut out the eyes, nose, and mouth and get it ready to light. Add the candle and place on the front porch - you are now ready for the fall season. But wait a minute, take a step back and wonder---why do we do this wonderful ritual each year?
The story of the Jack O'Lantern can be traced back to Ireland. In the Emerald Isle they carve turnips or other root crops to make their smaller versions of the Jack O'Lantern. But not until 1837 does jack-o'-lantern appear as a term for a carved vegetable lantern.# Even then, the carved lights were used in the fall but not tied to Halloween for almost 50 years to come. The lights started to be a symbol of the Halloween season after the folk tale was spread. There are many versions of the tale but this is the one I heard a long time ago and lives in my memory to this day.
Jack was a common thief in a small Irish village. One day, being very greedy, he stole from the church and took the Holy Communion cups, some rosaries, and a crucifix. He placed the crucifix in his pocket, the rosaries around his neck, and the cups in his bag and started to leave town. The village priest saw him leaving the church and noted the items were missing so he sounded the alarm. The angry villagers started after Jack with pitch forks and torches. Jack made his way to a tree outside the village running for his life. There at the tree was the devil waiting for Jack. It was time for Jack to die and come to judgment. Jack, not wanting to pass into the next life now when he had made it this far, tricked the devil into turning into a silver coin. Jack would give back the items and pay for his crime with the coin and the devil would be able to cause havoc among the pious villagers. The deal was that once Devil was turned into the silver coin Jack would give the coin to the villagers and in their pocket the devil would disappear. This would cause the villagers to fight over who stole the coin, thus making it ripe for the devil to work in the village. Well Jack was smarter than the devil and placed the coin the Devil had turned into next to the crucifix in his pocket. The devil was trapped and powerless. Jack struck a new deal with the devil in which he vowed never to take the soul of Jack to his lair for judgment. So Jack lived and did anything he pleased until the day he died. Once dead, his soul could not enter into the Pearly Gates and was unable to face his judgment. The Jack O'Lantern was a symbol of this trapped man, and said to remind us not to follow in the ways of greed.
Maybe this year, with everything you are getting ready for the Halloween season, stop to think about the Jack O'Lantern and the symbol of greed it represents. Funny, is it not, that a night when children want to dig out all the candy they can get is marked with the symbol of a man who fell to eternal wandering due to greed.
Thumbnail is under a GNU Free Documentation License per Wikipedia.
Image of the devil is Illustration 34 of Divine Comedy:Inferno by Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883), and is in public domain.
About Mitch Fitzgerald
I am a pentecostal preacher, gardener,husband, and a father. I love natives, daylilies, iris, and roses. I love teaching others, be they children or adults, about the garden and plants.