Every year, we witness big round pumkins being carved during Halloween and small candles or electric lights placed inside the hollowed vegetable to make a special lamp. Known as the "Jack-o'-lantern", this unique lamp is a fixture of the annual Halloween celebrations in the U.K. and the U.S.A.
Few, however, know the origin behind this peculiar source of illumination.
The tradition of using carved vegetables as lamps existed in the ancient times. Primitive drawings suggest how glowing embers were put inside carved and hollowed out gourds and used as transportable sources of light. This was a folk tradition in many old tribes in early Europe. The practice of carving gourds into elaborately decorated lanterns existed
thousands of years back in Africa.
Throughout Ireland and Britain, there exists for a long time a tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, particularly the turnip, mangelwurzel, or swede. The custom is supposed to have its origin in an old Irish mythical tale revolving around a blacksmith named Jack who was nicknamed "Stingy Jack" for his miserly ways. A cunning man, Jack once ran into the Devil in a local pub who advised him to surrender his soul to him. But Jack outwitted the devil saying that he would give his soul to him only if he bought him a drink. The devil had no money and on Jack's advice, he turned himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy his drinks. But as soon as the devil did this, Jack put the coin into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack freed the devil, but not before he had agreed not to claim his soul for ten years.
Ten years later, Jack was walking along a lonely stretch of a country road when the devil suddenly appeared out of nowhere and demanded his soul. Jack pretended to agree to this but he made him one last request to bring him an apple hanging from a high branch of a tree. Satisfied with the knowledge that Jack would submit his soul after eating the apple, the devil started climbing the tree. But just as he reached the branch, Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross on the trunk of that tree. He forced the Devil to swear that he would never lay claim to Jack's soul after his death. He helped the devil come down only when the agreement was made. Jack engaged in all sorts of wickedness, free with the knowledge that his soul would never be received in hell and was only destined to enjoy the delights of heaven.
When Jack died, he found the gates of heaven closed on him. The angels of heaven would not let in such a wicked man as Jack. The devil was greatly miffed with Jack because of the tricks he played on him. When Jack pleaded with the devil, he reminded him of the agreement they had made and told him that he never broke a promise on his part.
Forsaken and forlorn, Jack entreated the devil to help him in some way. But the devil would not let him enter hell. The only mercy he showed Jack was handing him a burning coal to light his way into the world. His soul is believed to roam the earth since then and the phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy grounds at night is supposed to be the light that Jack carries to illuminate his way in the earth, though scientists hold that such lights are possibly caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by rotting organic matter. Such fantastical tales are believed to be products of Catholicism, which embraces a theology of hell and promotes a code of behaviors for eternal salvation. Stories and fables like these abounded in Catholic countries in the pre-Modern era to warn believers of the consequences if they did not hold to their beliefs. In old Ireland, people carved and lit turnips on All Hallow’s Eve to remind their children and grandchildren that they do not use cunningness and trickery to rise in life and meet such a terrible end as Jack.
When Irish immigrants came to America after the Irish potato famine of 1846, they carried along their beliefs and traditions. Thus the tradition of Jack-o’-lantern also came to America. But while turnips and potatoes were used in Ireland, the Irish people as also the Americans used pumpkins for their Halloween lamps. This was because unlike in Ireland, turnips were not readily available here. Moreover pumpkins were already utilized by the Americans as carved vegetable lanterns during the harvest season.
Since 1866, pumpkins began to be carved like a face and candles put inside it on every Halloween. Placing this beside the front door was supposed to ward off evil spirits, that they might move on into the night and not stay in that town or village.
Today, the Jack-o’-lantern is more of a funfilled tradition and less of a moral instrument. Every October 31 sees millions of people in America as well as in many other nations carving and lighting their own pumpkins. The tradition has become such an important part of Halloween celebrations that the big, round pumpkin has turned into one of the most prominent symbols of the holiday.
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