Autumn is the season when trees in preparation for the winter months have one last hurrah. They are decked with brilliant hues of orange and red. The ground carpeted in the same hues rustles underfoot as gentle but cooler breezes buffet the sleeves and gently caress the cheeks of strollers.
With the diminishing daylight and the earth shrouded in darkness carved pumpkins, with ghoulish faces illuminated by candles, make their debut every October on porches and doorsteps all during the Halloween season to uplift our spirits. This long standing practice, whether in Europe or North America, originated with an Irish folktale about a man called Stingy Jack.
Was stingy Jack a good character or not, you may judge for yourself. We all know the Devil stands for something evil, something we should avoid. Perhaps Stingy Jack was pestered by the Devil and he devised this recourse. Anyhow, without further ado let me relate the fable.
Stingy Jack once invited the Devil to have a drink with him but, as Stingy Jack’s name reveals, he had no intention of paying for the drink. With his glib tongue Stingy Jack convinced the Devil to transform himself into a coin with which to pay the bartender for their drinks. But when the Devil turned himself into a glistening gold coin Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross that would prevent the Devil from ever changing back into his original form. Now in an advantageous position to negotiate Jack eventually agreed to free the Devil with the proviso that the Devil would not bother Jack for at least one year and, in the event Jack suddenly dies, the Devil would not claim his soul.
Rather a clever chap, wouldn’t you agree? But he was far from being an angel. He was an unsavory, immoral character after all. The next year, Jack again managed to trick this unbelievably gullible Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not descend until he gave his word not to claim Jack’s soul for another ten years.
Alas, soon after this Jack died. As the myth goes, God refused admittance of such an unsavory character into heaven. The Devil, still miffed by the trick Jack had played on him and, in keeping with his bargain, could not claim his soul nor allow Jack admittance into Hell. He therefore sent Jack packing into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. The ever resourceful Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has ever since been roaming the Earth. Sometime later still it is said that the Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
Overtime in Ireland and Scotland, people getting creative began carving their own versions of scary images of Jack’s lanterns into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to scare away Stingy Jack and other wondering evil spirits.
With the influx of Irish immigrants in North America this tradition was soon incorporated into new world culture. As pumpkins were sturdier and more readily available they became the star attraction.