Early Origins of Halloween
The modern traditions of Halloween have roots in a Celtic holiday called Samhain, which was celebrated throughout Western Europe (but especially Ireland) every Oct. 31 to mark the end of the summer and the final harvest.
Like Halloween itself, the display and carving of pumpkins – from the lanterns placed inside to the scary faces we pick – has pagan origins that morphed with the passage of time as well as the crossing of an ocean.
Warding off the Otherworld
As the tipping point that also ushered in the beginning of the “dark season,” it was believed that the night opened a kind of door to the Otherworld, letting spirits roam the Earth.
“The feast of Samhain was the occasion of stock-taking and in-gathering, of reorganizing communities for the winter months, including the preparation of quarters for itinerant warriors and shamans,” wrote Nicholas Rogers, a historian at York University in Toronto, in his book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, 2002). “It was also a period of supernatural intensity, when the forces of darkness and decay were said to be abroad, spilling out from the sidh, the ancient barrows or hills of the countryside.”
To combat the threat, ancient Celts often held raging bonfires – fire being a common way to ward off evil spirits.
The practice continued throughout the region even after Christianity took hold in the Middle Ages and the festival was renamed All Hallows Eve. Later, in towns, the fires shrank and were placed instead within turnips or gourds, which were inexpensive, readily available and safe “containers.”
“Originally they were simply pierced to emit light, and were carried to scare away the spirits from the Otherworld who could enter the mortal realm,” said Verlyn Flieger, a mythology specialist at the University of Maryland. Carving the gourds became common over time, Flieger explained. “Designed to ward off scary faces, they gradually took on the aspects of the very foes they were supposed to forestall.”
From Turnips To Pumpkins
All Hallows Eve came to North America “by boat, like everything else, carried by European immigrants to the New World,” Flieger said. The holiday exploded in the United States and Canada with the wave of Irish that came over during that country’s potato famine in the mid 19th century.
The new Americans couldn’t find their usual produce to carve at Halloween, however, so they turned to a reasonable facsimile.
“Gourds were scarce in the New World and turnips even scarcer, so pumpkins became the veggie of choice,” said Flieger.
When we think of Jack-o-Lanterns today we think of the carved pumpkins with candles lighting them brightly from within; but did you know that the Jack-o-Lantern actually has deep historical roots and originally didn’t even involve a pumpkin? The Jack-o-Lantern stems from an old Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack.
The Legend of Stingy Jack
According to the story, Stingy Jack, an Irish blacksmith and notorious drunk, had the great misfortune to run into the Devil in a pub. Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence that Jack could use to buy their drinks in exchange for Jack’s soul. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack and not try to claim his soul for ten years.
When the ten years had passed, Jack ran into the Devil as he walked down a country road. The Devil was anxious to claim what was due but Jack stalled. Jack thought quickly and said to the devil. “I’ll go, but before I go, will you get me an apple from that tree?” The Devil thinking he had nothing to lose climbed the tree as Jack pointed to the choicest apple. Perturbed, the Devil climbed high into the tree after the apple Jack selected. When he was high up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down. Jack, very proud of himself made the Devil promise to never again ask him for his soul. Seeing no other choice the Devil reluctantly agreed.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. Being unable to go to heaven or hell Jack asked the Devil where he should go. The Devil only replied, “Back where you came from!” The way back was very dark so Jack begged the Devil to at least give him a light to find his way. The Devil tossed Jack burning coal from the fire of hell to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.” Today we commonly spell it jack-o-lantern or jack-o’-lantern.
Jack-O-Lantern Tradition Across the World
In Ireland and Scotland, people believed that spirits and ghosts could enter their world on Halloween. These spirits and ghosts would be attracted to the comforts of their earthly lives. People not wanting to be visited by these ghosts would set food and treats out to appease the roaming spirits and began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.
In England, large beets are used. Immigrants from these countries brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns. They were softer and easier to carve than the turnips and potatoes of their homeland.
So remember this Halloween when you are carving your pumpkin the moral of the story of Stingy Jack!
Michael MacFarlane, FSAScot