Belief in brief: Jack-o'-lanterns

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A conniving drunken farmer is quite possibly the reason why glowing jack-o’-lanterns light up many porches on Halloween. These lanterns are meant to scare away evil spirits that may come back to Earth on Oct. 31.

Legend of Jack of the Lantern

An Irish folk tale tells the story of "Stingy Jack," sometimes also known as Jack the Smith and Jack of the Lantern, who loved to play tricks on everyone.

In the tale, Jack encounters the devil during one of his drunken rambles. The devil was going to take Jack's soul to hell, but Jack decided to play a trick on the devil before he got the chance. In one version of the story, Jack convinces the devil to climb up a tree to retrieve an apple and then traps him there by carving crosses in the trunk. Another has Jack persuading the devil to turn into a coin so he can pay off a bar tab. Jack places the coin in a pouch with a cross thus trapping the devil. Jack eventually releases the devil, but only on one condition — that the devil will keep Jack's soul out of hell for 10 years. Jack died seven years later. When he arrived at the gates of heaven, the story goes, God wouldn’t let him in because of his laziness, drunkenness and manipulative deeds during his life. Jack then went to the gates of hell but the devil would not let him pass because he had promised to keep Jack’s soul out of hell. Instead, the devil gives Jack a glowing ember to light his way as he wanders on Earth. Jack put the ember in a hollowed-out turnip, creating a crude lantern.

Villagers in Ireland began carving scary faces into turnip lanterns, before the inhabitants were introduced to Christianity, to scare away Jack’s spirit. The tradition traveled with immigrants when they came to America and was attached to the holiday Halloween.

Why Pumpkins?

Jack-o’-lanterns were originally carved out of turnips by inhabitants of the British Isles. However, when the people came to America, they found that pumpkins, native to North America, worked just as well and made much larger lanterns.

A Brief History of Halloween

The Celts lived in Ireland, the United Kingdom and northern France around 2,000 years ago.  They celebrated Samhain on the night of Oct. 31. It was believed that on that night the ghosts of the dead would cross over into the land of the living.

When Christianity spread to the Celts, Samhain was absorbed into Christian traditions. Pope Boniface IV declared that Nov. 1 was All Saint’s Day, also known as All-hallows in old English. Oct. 31 then became All-hallows Eve and later Halloween.



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