Halloween and the Jack’O Lantern

Halloween and the Jack’O Lantern

In recent years the holiday of Halloween has undergone somewhat of an Americanisation. The holiday has become more glamourous and more festive. To many young people the spooky origins of the feast day have been lost. Today many families carve pumpkins into Jack ‘O Lanterns and many would be forgiven for thinking that this tradition originates in the United States.

The tradition of carving lanterns actually started here in Ireland with turnips which were much harder to carve but arguably looked scarier. We all know the Halloween as a feast started with the pagan festival of Samhain. This was a time of year when the veil between this world and the next was at its weakest and spirits roamed the world. These spirits were good and bad and counter intuitively scary images were placed in houses to ward away the malevolent spirits.

We know the name of some of these spirits in the old Gaelic tradition. We have the Banshee whose cry heralded the imminent death of someone in the family. We also had the Dullahan or the headless horseman who came to claim the dead. Another character was a man called Stingy Jack who was a trickster similar in many ways to the Norse God Loki. Stingy Jack even managed to play tricks on the devil avoiding the afterlife for many years. When finally faith and the devil caught up with Stingy Jack he was sent down to hell. Here the devil refused to take him. The devil banished Stingy Jack to wander the earth forever especially at Halloween. The devil threw Jack a ember from the fires of hell to light his way. Jack carved a lantern from a turnip and became known as Jack of the Lantern. Irish migrants in the 19th century brought this legend across the Atlantic where they discovered that Pumpkins were easier to carve than Turnips. So it’s to an Irish character called Stingy Jack that we owe the origins of our modern Jack O Lanterns.

The image shown is from the Irish Museum of Country Life in Turlough House Co Mayo.

Thanks to James Doherty for this post.

The image shown is from the Irish Museum of Country Life in Turlough House Co Mayo.
The image shown is from the Irish Museum of Country Life in Turlough House Co Mayo.