Who’s Jack? And what’s up with the lantern?
There’s a lot of ancient tradition involving scary lights at harvest time. Pre-Christian Europeans celebrated Samhaim, the autumn festival of the Dead, with bonfires and torches and other late-night illuminations. Samhaim was later displaced by All Saint’s Day, but the fascination with the afterlife continued, in the form of All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. By the 1700’s, it was common in England to celebrate the holiday by hollowing out whatever was available – potatoes, beets or turnips – and putting candles inside, to create spooky lanterns with which to scare the children. Boo.
From there, many back-stories developed, the most famous of which is an Irish myth about a thief named Stingy Jack. He steals some crops and gets chased into the night by the locals, when he meets Satan. He convinces Satan to transform himself into a coin that Jack can use to pay for the stolen goods, which will allow Satan to then capture all the villagers’ souls. Satan agrees, but it’s a trick: Jack puts the coin into his wallet next to a silver cross, thus trapping Satan within. Later, Jack lets Satan go, but only on the promise he will never take Jack’s soul. Which works out just fine for Jack, until he dies, is denied entry into heaven, and can’t go to hell either. And so poor Jack is condemned to wander the earth for eternity, carrying a stolen turnip which has been hollowed out and lit with an ember from hell. He’s “Undead Jack of the Sinister Shining Rutabaga.” Weird.
Pumpkins, meanwhile, are uniquely American. They come from Mexico, where they were first domesticated in Oaxaca about 7,500 years ago. The first pumpkins were hard little balls, but over time they were selectively bred into the large hollow gourds we know today. When the first Europeans arrived in the New World, they found that the Wampanoag Indians were growing pumpkins extensively, and that the fruit (no, they are NOT vegetables) stored well over the winter and made for a nice savory dish that tasted like mashed sweet potatoes. Yum.
And they made even better lanterns. English and Irish colonists who traditionally had made lights out of nasty little root vegetables were overjoyed when they discovered big ole’ American pumpkins. Soon everybody was opening, hollowing, carving and lighting pumpkin lanterns for All Hallow’s Eve. In 1820, the practice became world famous with the publication of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” featuring a sinister horseman whose head had been replaced by a blazing pumpkin noggin from hell. Yikes!
And so it all comes together. Druid traditions co-opted by Christians, orange gourds developed by Indians, a spooky ghost story made famous by an American, and an Irish tightwad tuber-thief trickster condemned to exist in undead limbo forever.
As “Jack O’Lantern.”