Lesson #81: Jack o’ Lanterns

Yes, I am aware that Halloween is not for another 8 months. But I saw this picture today and it cracked me up. Because I’m twisted like that.

The thing I love about things like jack o’ lanterns is that they have a legend attached to them. It’s not like someone just one day decided that it would be cool. And while you might think that the tradition is an American one (since pumpkins are native to the new world*), you’d be wrong.

The jack o’ lantern tradition comes from the British Isles where the Irish and Scots traditionally used turnips or potatoes and the English used beets to ward off evil spirits. And Jack of the Lantern.

Specifically, the legend is Irish and it tells the story of Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack tricked the devil. Twice. Apparently the devil’s an idiot in Irish folklore. Anyway, the story goes that Jack invited the devil to share a drink with him. Not wanting to pay the bill, he talked the devil into turning himself into money so he could pay the bill, which the devil did. But instead of paying the bill, Stingy Jack kept the coin and put it in his pocket next to a silver cross to prevent the devil from changing back into whatever form it is the devil shows himself in normally. After a while, Jack decided to let the devil out on the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year and that if he died, the devil wouldn’t claim his soul. After a year, the devil shows up (for kicks apparently) and gets duped again in the same way.** Anyway, this time Jack tricks him into turning into a fruit and putting himself on a tree, which Jack then carves a cross into. So after a while, Jack lets him out again on the condition that he not bother Jack for ten years and should he die, his soul would remain unclaimed. Soon after Jack and the devil make this deal, Jack dies, but since he’s not exactly an upstanding citizen, he can’t get into heaven. But the devil can’t claim him either. Instead the devil gives him a handful of coal to light up the night and sends him on his way. So Jack carves a lamp out of a turnip and wanders off into the night. And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.***

*Which explains why I couldn’t find any pumpkin with which to make pie last fall.

**Like I said, the devil’s not too smart in Irish folklore.

***More reading here.

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