KSN/KODE — Among the most iconic symbols of the fall season is the Jack-o’-lantern: a carved pumpkin aglow with a mysterious light. But the origins of this cherished autumnal tradition are shrouded in the enchanting folklore of Ireland, where ancient storytellers in the 1500s began to weave tales of a sly, cunning, and deceitful character named Jack.
This tale begins on a fateful night when Jack daringly invited the Devil for a drink. Through deception, he managed to trick the Devil into transforming into a coin to foot the bill. But Jack’s bold treachery didn’t end there; he trapped the Devil by placing the coin next to a silver cross. Only after the Devil agreed to spare his soul did Jack set him free. Some renditions recount how Jack hoodwinked the Devil on more than one occasion. But eventually, the day of reckoning arrived and the Devil came to collect Jack’s debt.
In an ironic twist of fate, both Heaven and Hell denied Jack entry. Jack’s soul was cursed to wander the earthly realm for all eternity, his only companion a burning coal to provide a small glimmer in the darkness. Jack placed the ember within a hollowed-out turnip, a native Irish vegetable, and roamed the Earth in search of a sanctuary to rest his soul. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern,” a moniker that would later evolve into Jack-o’-lantern. This beacon illuminated the path for others who, in a bid to stave off wandering spirits, carved eerie faces into turnips and placed a flickering light within.
The practice found its roots in the Celtic Samhain celebrations of Ireland and northern Europe, a time to honor the end of the harvest season and the arrival of winter. This seasonal transition was a metaphor for death and many believed that during this period, the veil separating the living and the dead grew thin. It was frightening faces carved into turnips that, according to tradition, warded Jack from finding rest and kept malevolent spirits at bay.
As the 19th century saw the mass migration of Irish and Scottish immigrants to America, the Jack-o’-lantern tradition underwent a transformation. Pumpkins, native to the new land, replaced the humble turnip.
While the tale of Jack serves as the most renowned genesis of the Jack-o’-lantern, the Irish folktale has numerous facets. Some say that Jack undertook the role of guiding lost souls, while others suggest that these lanterns were a form of protection against evil spirits. During this era, people also observed ethereal “ghost” lights hovering over marshes and bogs, a phenomenon we now attribute to marsh gas. As methane and phosphine gases, released from decaying organic matter, react with oxygen, they can ignite, creating eerie, otherworldly lights. Many attributed this natural phenomenon to Jack of the Lantern, other wandering spirits, fairies, or elemental beings, giving rise to a host of names, such as Will-o’-the-wisp and the Lantern Man.
Jack-o’-lanterns, intricately woven with the diverse variations of its origin, creates a rich and vibrant tapestry within the fabric of our autumnal festivities, maintaining a tradition that has endured for over 500 years.