As a primer for the approaching, “Day of the Dead” I thought I’d share the urban legend that inspired the Jack-o-Lantern.
This tale is rooted in Irish folklore, stemmed off of the reputation of a man called Stingy Jack.
Stingy Jack was a nasty deviant, foul tempered and mean was he! Jack was a known alcoholic that frequently beat his wife and children before setting off into the streets to create mischief with whoever was unfortunate enough to encounter him.
One Halloween night Jack comes staggering in to the local pub. He bellies up to the bar and orders a drink, but the Bar Keep is no fool. Jack frequently comes in to the bar and drinks then has no money to pay. This night there would be no free drinks for Jack.
By now he is irate as the Bar Keep has refused him service. He looks about the pub and discovers that every man in the room has turned their backs to him, no doubt they had all fallen victim to his evil ways.
Just as he had about given up, the door to the pub flies open revealing Satan himself standing beneath the threshold. You see, Satan had come to claim Jack’s soul on this night and he was eager to add another wicked man to his minions.
Jack peered over at the towering beast and deep within him he knew that he had been the reason for Satan’s visit. Jack, thinking quickly, invites Satan to have a drink with him. Satan, seeing no reason to refuse his offer, approaches the bar. Jack orders two pints of ale for them, then proceeds to gulp his down in one swig. Now Jack, having no money, laughs at the Bar Keep when he demands payment. He then turns to Satan and convinces him to turn himself into a sixpence so that he could pay for their drinks.
Satan, seeing no harm in a further delay, turns himself into a sixpence. Jack, true to his own evil nature, picks the sixpence up from the bar and puts it into his pocket next to a silver cross which would keep Satan from returning to his true form. Jack then flees from the pub, his belly full of ale and his pocket heavy with coin.
At some point Jack decides to set Satan free and releases him to return to his true form with one condition; that Satan would not return for his soul for 10 years.
Ten years later Jack is stumbling down a dark country road and who should he encounter other than Satan himself! Satan, angered at having been outsmarted and imprisoned by a drunkard, is eager to claim what is rightfully his.
“I’ll go with you” Jack said. “But before I go, will you pick that apple from the tree for me” he said motioning to the top of a nearby apple tree.
Satan, feeling he had nothing to lose, climbed the tree but soon became perturbed as jack stood pointing at the highest apple on the tree. He grumbled loudly but continued climbing up into the tree.
When Jack saw that he was on the highest branch, he ran quickly to the tree and carved a cross into the trunk so Satan could not descent. Jack, now overjoyed by his own wit, made Satan promise that he would never again come seeking his soul. Satan, seeing no other option, begrudgingly agreed.
Soon after this, Jack died but the story doesn’t end here. Seeing as that Jack was such an unsavory character and had knowingly made deals with the devil, God refused him entry to Heaven. Jack soon after finds himself at the gates of Hell, but he would find no solace here. Satan was still quite put off by the tricks that Jack had played on him, he too refused Jack entrance.
Jack, standing alone in the darkness cries out to Satan. “God will not allow me into heaven and you refuse to claim my soul, where is it that I am to go?”
Satan, feeling no compassion for Jack, calls back to him, “Go back where you came from!”
The way back was very dark and treacherous and Jack was afraid. He began begging Satan for a light so that he may find his way back. Satan, now more that a little irritated, tossed some coals from the lake of fire at Jack’s feet. Jack carved out a turnip and placed the coals inside to light his way. From that day forward Jack has roamed the earth in the form of a shadowy man, carrying what we know today as a Jack-o-Lantern.
Now that you know the urban legend, I’ll fill you in on the pumpkin side! The carved turnips became common place because of the great potato famine. When Irish immigrants began to migrate to the United States, they found an abundance of pumpkins or other gourds that were much larger and much easier to carve.
Homes all across the United States and other countries place Jack-o-Lanterns in the windows or on their front porches for dual purposes, whether we knew it or not. The Jack-o-Lantern is said to frighten old Stingy Jack away but on the flip side, a tasty gourd is seen as a food offering to other ill willed spirits that are free to haunt the living on All Hallows Eve. Got your pumpkin ready?