Everybody loves a jack-o-lantern. Not nearly as many know the origins of this seasonal decoration, which has become an incredibly common element of the final harvest celebration of the year. You may know that celebration as Halloween. Or if you follow the Pagan calendar, perhaps as Samhain.
Jack-o-lanterns were originally carved from root vegetables, such as; rutabagas, beets, and turnips. As there were no pumpkins to be found in 19th century Ireland where the tradition originated.
These hand carved lanterns were placed by the doors of homes in Ireland to ward off the spirit of a man named Jack. Jack of the lantern.
And here is the legend of that man …
The Legend of Jack of the Lantern
One day while sitting at his local pub, a man named Jack ran into the devil. Ol' Jack had a hankering for another drink but he was running low on cash. The devil offered to buy it for him in return for his soul. Jack agreed. But the devil had no money with him so he turned himself into a coin to pay for Ol' Jack's drink. Jack swiftly grabbed that coin and slipped it right into his pocket. The very same pocket that he carried his cross in. Because of that cross the devil was rendered powerless to turn back into his original form. And so, in return for his freedom he made another deal with Jack. He agreed to wait to take Jack's soul until they met again. Several years passed before Ol' Jack ran into the devil again. But sure enough, one day they met under an apple tree in the wood. The devil was good and ready to collect on Jack's debt to him, when Jack asked him to climb the tree and fetch him a fresh, ripe apple for his last meal. Once the devil was in the tree, Ol' Jack placed crosses all around it's base so the devil couldn't come back down. He kept the devil captive up there until he agreed not to take his soul at all, not even when he died. Jack walked away from this encounter with the devil feeling pretty darn clever. But, in the end he would find that his trickery didn't really work to his advantage. You see when Ol' Jack did die, he headed straight to heaven expecting to be welcomed in. But he hadn't led the kind of life that gets you past the pearly gates. St. Peter turned him away without a second thought. Jack didn't know what to do. He was left with only two other choices. He could wander the Netherworld, the space between heaven and hell, for all eternity or he could head down to hell and try to convince the devil to take him in. He was pretty certain that the devil would actually be pleased to see him and would consider it a feather in his cap that he got Ol' Jack's soul after all. But the devil wasn't interested in bargaining with Jack. He had every intention of keeping his word to Jack. And he turned him away from the gates leading into his kingdom. Jack tried to plea with him. He explained that he couldn't possibly leave because if he did he would not be able to find his way around the darkness of the Netherworld without a light. And Ol' Jack had no light with him. The devil wouldn't take the bait and allow him refuge in hell, But, he did gift him a coal from the eternal fires of hell to light his way through the Netherworld. Now, Ol' Jack just happened to have a turnip in his pocket. He loved turnips, and always carried one with him. So, he carved that turnip right into a lantern and tossed the ember inside. Ever since that very day, Ol' Jack has been roaming the Netherworld with his dimly lit turnip lantern, searching for a place to rest his weary bones. It is said that if one doesn't carve themselves a lantern like Jack's, and place it near their door with a light in it on Halloween/Samhain, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinnest, Ol' Jack may find his way into their home. And since he is a deceitful trickster and quite an unwelcome guest, it's best to put out your lantern before the darkness sets in at night and Ol' Jack comes 'round.
Now, considering Ol’ Jack is still out there wandering the Netherworld with a lantern made from a turnip, how did it come to pass that we quit carving up root vegetables to make our own jack-o-lanterns and started carving pumpkins instead?
Well, I’ll tell ya …
When Irish immigrants flocked to the shores of America in the mid 1800’s, they were introduced to the pumpkin. It didn’t take them long to recognize how much more suitable this fleshy fruit was for carving, than the root vegetables they had used for so many years in their beloved homeland. So, the jack-o-lantern as we know it today, was born 😉
Because I am the kind who has to immerse themselves in the practices of my ancestors, I found the idea of carving a big ‘ol rutabaga quite irresistible. So I gave it a go.
I enjoyed the experience in spite of how hard it was to carve this little guy. It was fun. It is something I’ve wanted to do for some time. And finally checking it off the should-do list felt good. I really think he’s pretty cool looking. And I’m going to enjoy having his company this harvest season. Not to mention that I have no worries of Ol’ Jack getting in my house and causing any trouble 😉
While I’m not likely to do it again, because it is significantly more difficult to carve than a pumpkin, I would definitely recommend that everybody do it once.
Have you ever carved a jack-o-lantern from anything other than a pumpkin? Do you think you’d like to give it a try? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this Old World tradition. So, let’s meet in the comments and chat all about it 😉
As always, your presence is greatly appreciated. I adore that you are here. And I just know that we are going to have great fun together ❤