Someone said yesterday in an email at the school, “Good afternoon, boys and ghouls!”
Have you ever heard the story of the jack o’lantern? Thousands of Americans around this time of year scoop out the flesh of a pumpkin, carve a haunting face into its rind, and stick a candle inside. These jack o’lanterns are then displayed on porches and stoops.
There is an Irish legend that a man called Stingy Jack invited the Devil for a drink and convinced him to shape-shift into a coin that he could pay with. When the devil obliged, Jack decided he wanted the coin for other purposes, and kept it in his pocket beside a small, silver cross to prevent it from turning back into the devil.
Jack eventually freed the devil under the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for one year, and wouldn’t claim Jack’s soul once he died. The next year Jack tricked the devil once more by convincing him to climb up a tree to fetch a piece of fruit. When he was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so the devil couldn’t come down until he swore he wouldn’t bother Stingy Jack for another ten years.
When Jack died, God wouldn’t allow him into Heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t allow him into Hell. He was instead sent into the eternal night, with a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. He has been roaming the Earth ever since. The Irish began to refer to this spooky figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” which then became “Jack O’Lantern.”
People in Ireland and Scotland began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving grotesque faces into turnips, potatoes and beets, placing them by their homes to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits and travelers.
Once this became a Halloween tradition, jack-o-lanterns were used as guides for people dressed in costume on Samhain (Oct 31 – Nov 1), a Gaelic pagan version of Halloween, seen as a night when the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead is especially thin. The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year.
When the Irish and Scots emigrated to America, they brought this tradition along and found that pumpkins, native to America, made perfect fruits for carving. Pumpkin jack-o-lanterns have been an integral part of Halloween festivities ever since.
Some believe that the jack-o-lanterns originated with All Saints’ Day, and represent Christian souls in Purgatory. Roaming Stingy Jack is in what would be considered Purgatory.
I think it is important to see Christian meaning behind holiday symbols. Halloween can help us to think about the afterlife: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory; and the interaction between us here on Earth and the invisible, spirit world.