A TALE FOR ALL HALLOWS EVE….
One of most well-known traditions associated with Halloween, is the carving of pumpkin lanterns.
Less well-known, however, is that this most common of Halloween crafts, has its roots firmly embedded in ancient Irish folklore.
When Christianity reached the shores of Ireland, believed to be prior to the 5th Century, the ancient Gaelic/Pagan traditions became along the way intertwined, forming a symbiotic relationship with the new religion.
At Samhain/Halloween, it has long been believed that good spirits, sprites, imps and fairies were particularly active, and alongside them, evil or malevolent spirits roamed the earth collecting unwary souls to take with them to the underworld.
One of these malevolent spirits was given the name ‘Stingy Jack’, and it was said that his foul essence was one of those who roamed the earth at Samhain, carrying what appeared to be a lamp, appearing to unwary travellers and locals alike.
And probably scaring them half to death in the process.
Good spirits were active at this time too of course, but they were celebrated, made welcome and were certainly not feared, but according to local legend, the bad spirits could be kept at bay by the sight of ghostly-lit faces placed in the trees and outside people’s homes.
According to the traditional story, Stingy Jack in life, was a drunkard who was known throughout all of Ireland as a thief, a deceiver, a parasite and a cruel manipulator, albeit with a silver tongue and a roguish charm, and was seen as being among the dregs of humanity.
One night, the Devil himself happened to overhear the tale of Jack’s many nefarious exploits, and made a point of seeking him out to discover for himself, whether Jack really lived up to his vile repution.
Later that night, as was typical of Jack, he was very drunk and belligerent, and was, as was also typical of him, wandering around the countryside at night.
As he lurched drunkenly along a cobblestone path, he stumbled upon a body.
This body, appeared to Jack to be very much dead, but as he peered closer, Jack saw that it had a terrifying grimace etched upon it’s face, and was in fact Satan himself – and who was, also very much alive….
Jack realised to his horror, that his own malevolent soul was about to be collected.
At once, Jack hit upon a plan – he would invite the Devil to have a drink with him.
He took him to a local inn, ordered two drinks, and true to his name had no intention of paying for them himself, so he sweet-talked his guest into turning himself into a coin that Jack could use to pay for the drinks.
Once the Devil had done this, Jack immediately picked up the coin from the bar, and put it into his pocket along with a silver crucifix, which prevented Satan from changing back into his original form.
After a while, Jack freed his captive, releasing him only on the condition that he would not bother Jack for a whole year, and should he die in the meantime, would not come to collect his immortal soul.
The Devil grudgingly agreed and disappeared.
Exactly a year later, Jack was again very drunk, and indulging in his habit of wandering around the countryside in the dark annoying people, when once again he stumbled upon a familiar figure.
This time however, the Devil was very much wiser and refused the offer to go for another drink with Jack, but he had not reckoned on Jack’s latest trick, which was to persuade his hellish visitor to climb a tree that was nearby, to pick a piece of fruit for him.
While the Devil was making his way up the tree to where the best fruit was, Jack pulled out his pocket knife, and carved the sign of the cross into the bark, preventing the Devil from climbing back down.
The Devil pleaded for hours with Jack to be allowed to come down from the tree, and before Jack finally allowed him to do so, he made him swear that he would not bother him again for a full ten years.
The Devil, as he had already been tricked twice by silver-tongued Jack, had no choice but to agree, and climbed down from the tree before promptly disappearing back to where he came from.
Sometime later that year, Stingy Jack died.
The story says when his immortal soul attempted to enter the gates of heaven, Saint Peter, under direct instruction from God himself, was adamant that an unsavoury character such as Stingy Jack would never be allowed to pass through into paradise, and sent him instead to the underworld, where, true to his earlier promise to Jack, Satan would not claim his soul – nor would he allow him to enter Hell either.
So he sent Jack off into the dark night, alone, and to forever wander the earth with only a burning coal in his hand to light his way.
As he began his eternal journey, Jack stole a turnip from a nearby garden, and fashioned it with his trusty pen-knife to hold the burning coal, and has ever since, been seen roaming throughout the countryside every Samhain – his only source of illumination still visible inside a hollowed-out root vegetable.
The Irish began to refer to this ghostly apparition as ‘Jack of the Lantern‘, and after time, simply ‘Jack O’Lantern‘.
Irish immigrants landing in the United States carried on this tradition of their homeland, but began to use the much easier to carve pumpkins instead of turnips, a tradition which has since travelled back across the Atlantic, where nowadays it is almost always pumpkins which are carved into Jack O’ Lanterns in both Ireland and the rest of the British Isles.
HAPPY SAMHAIN, AND KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR JACK IF YOU ARE EVER WALKING ALONE IN THE WOODS AFTER DARK….