Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jack of the Lantern

“To a new world of gods and monsters!”
- Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Happy Halloween everyone!…ok so it’s not actually Halloween yet but the day is fast approaching as we all well know. It may come as no surprise to some of you to learn that my absolute favorite holiday is that of Halloween, what with all the myth and legend that surrounds the date.

One of the things about Halloween that sets it apart from most other holidays, however, is that it has no largely recognizable mascot. Christmas has Santa Claus, Easter the Easter Bunny, Valentine’s Day Cupid, etc…even Thanksgiving (which isn’t even a religious observance here in America) has turkeys and pilgrims to represent it. Halloween however has no one. Most stores that I go into to look for Halloween-themed goods (which I then keep out all year long) usually represent the holiday with a motley assortment of witches, ghosts, vampires and monsters. And while all of these characters are certainly important reasons for the season (especially ghosts) none of them really seem like the holiday’s actual mascot.

But then there is the Jack-O'-Lantern. The carving of Jack-O'-Lanterns is a time honored tradition and one of the most easily recognizable pieces of iconography associated with Halloween. The tradition of Jack-O'-Lantern dates back hundreds of years to Ireland where Halloween first originated in the form of the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). Originally Jack-O'-Lanterns were carved out of turnips, it wasn’t until Irish immigrants came to America and discovered the pumpkin that anyone realized that a giant gourd would definitely be a whole lot easier to carve than a tiny turnip

Like all icons the Jack-O'-Lantern has a story behind it explaining its origins and where it comes from. In this case, the story of the Jack-O'-Lantern is related directly to the Irish folktale of Jack of the Lantern; a less than likeable fellow who was forsaken by both God and the devil. There are many versions of the tale of Jack of the Lantern (which will be discussed later) but the one that follows is my personal favorite…

The Tale of Jack of the Lantern as retold by Justin M...

There once lived an unsavory Irish-man by the name of Jack. Now Jack was never much good when it came to actual work, but when it came to drinking or gambling or dancing with pretty girls well then… Jack was your man. One night, after having quite a bit to drink, Jack found himself wandering home through an old apple orchard and it was there, in that orchard, that Jack found himself face to face with none other than the devil himself.

Of course, everyone knows the devil is a real sucker for an apple so when he asked Jack if he wouldn’t mind giving him a leg up into one of the apple trees so that he could pick a few fresh ones for himself Jack was not at all surprised. Now Jack may have been a gambler and a drunker but he was certainly no fool, as soon as he got the devil up into that tree he whipped out his pocketknife and carved a cross into the trunk of that tree, trapping the devil.

The devil pleaded with Jack to show him some sympathy and to let him down but Jack would hear nothing about it until the devil struck a deal with him. Jack wanted the devil’s word that when he died he would never have to send so much as one day in hell. Finally, the devil agreed to Jack’s terms and promised that under no circumstances would Jack ever have spend so much as one day in hell. With that Jack took his pocketknife and scrapped the cross off the tree trunk and let the devil go.

Well it wasn’t long until Jack’s wild ways caught up with him and he died. Upon dieing Jack found himself in the presence of St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. There Jack promptly requested to be let in but St. Peter refused saying that heaven did not admit drinkers and gamblers and especially those who made deals with the devil. Jack protested but no matter what he said St. Peter stood firm on the issue.

Finally Jack grew tiered of arguing and decided if he wasn’t going to be let into heaven than he would have to take his place in hell. So Jack trotted down to the fiery gates of hell and again requested to be let in. However, the devil appeared and told Jack that he was not going to let Jack into hell, a deal was a deal and the devil was a man of his word. Jack lamented his fate and asked the devil what it is he should do if was not to be allowed into either heaven or hell. The devil, is response, just laughed and told Jack that all that was left for him to do was to wander the earth as a restless spirit. The devil then picked up a piece of burning brimstone and tossed it to Jack telling him to put it in a hollowed out turnip and use it as a lantern to light his way in his long and endless wanderings across the earth, and that is exactly what Jack did and is still doing to this very day.

…as noted earlier the tale of Jack of the Lantern is one with many variations. In some versions of the story, for example, Jack doesn’t meet the devil until after he has drunk himself to death and it is on their way back to hell that the devil stops for an apple and is tricked by Jack. Another notable version of the tale features the devil appearing in a bar and making a bet with Jack that he can transform himself into any object Jack can think of. Jack tells the devil to turn into a coin, which the devil does, which Jack then picks up and places in his pocket along side a cross trapping the devil in Jack’s pocket. There is also a version of the tale which forgoes the turnip lantern aspect for a more wholly gruesome approach in which the devil tosses the burning brimstone straight into Jack’s mouth transforming his head into a living lantern.

Nevertheless, all these stories ultimately serve the same purpose, to explain where the name and idea of the Jack-O'-Lantern come from. There are those theorists who also suppose that the tale of Jack and his lantern helped people to explain swamp gas which can ignite and create strange lights which are commonly known in folklore and mythology as will-o'-the-wisps. There general reason behind the making and lighting of Jack-O'-Lantern is the belief that their presence will deter evil spirits who will associate it with Jack who once imprisoned their master the devil.

I say all this to make the case that perhaps Jack of the Lantern is really the mascot of Halloween, albeit a highly unfamiliar one. Perhaps if more people could become familiar with his legend this fabulous character from Irish folklore would have something of a fighting chance against such widely recognized figures as Santa and the Eastern Bunny


Top Right: Traditional Jack-O'-Lantern carved from pumpkin.

Middle Left: The devil trapped in a tree curtsey of www.jack-o-lantern.com.

Bottom Right: Jack-O'-Lantern carved from a turnip.

Sources: The Field Guide to North American Monsters (1998) by W. Haden Blackman & http://www.jack-o-lantern.com/.