Halloween and Jack’O’Lanterns: History and Folklore Abound



As with all things, Halloween has a past, as do Jack’O’Lanterns. I want to talk about both because you simply can’t have Halloween without Jack O’Lanterns. It wouldn’t be right. The “facts” behind both can probably be argued a good bit. I’d always heard that Halloween had it’s origins based in the Celtic holiday, Samhain (pronounced – sow-in). I recently came across an article that seemed to argue that point. From what I know of the holiday, it makes sense to have Celtic holidays. Let’s face it though – it’s been a long time and stories change over the years. That’s the funny thing about oral history. It’s a bit like playing “telephone.” What starts with a simply sentence has suddenly been nearly completely altered with only one or two words connecting the real sentence to the final product.

The good news is there’s enough actual history to make some real connections to Halloween. I tend to believe it’s origins come from Samhain. According to the History.com, the Celtic festival was really about celebrating the end of summer and the start of winter. The festival was held the night before the new year, which was Nov. 1 in those days. The Celts believed during that night the boundary between the living and the dead was blurred, making it easier to communicate and learn about their futures. The Celts had a very different point of view of the purpose of the holiday.


Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually, the Roman Empire would have an influence on this festival. It morphed to include celebrating Roman Goddess Pomona, who’s symbol was the apple, eventually giving way to why we tend to see bobbing for apples for Halloween. Catholicism would eventually also make it’s mark on the festival, shifting to All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saints Day on Nov. 1. All Souls’ Day is Nov. 2. Then Halloween would become as we know it today, filled with trick or treaters, Jack O’Lanterns, ghost, goblins, ghouls and imitating favorite movie characters and more. The History Channel points out that the holiday started out as one that celebrated and was focused on the future but now, we focus on the dead and the past. There’s probably a lot of symbolism there but I will leave that untouched for now.

One of the side points I thought was very interesting, was part of the celebration was actually focused on young women. Halloween, and its origins, are also based on superstitions, as we all still have them now (i.e. never cross black cats or break a mirror). There were various activities held to help women find their future husband. I don’t know… maybe I need to consider drinking a sweet concoction made of hazelnuts, walnuts, and nutmeg before bed tonight I’ll dream of my future husband. Perhaps throwing an apple peel over my shoulder will mean I’ll see my future husband’s initials. Perhaps not, but certainly couldn’t hurt I suppose.

Then there’s the history of ol’ Jack there. Again, I was reading from The History Channel’s website and learned something I hadn’t read before. I learned about ol’ “Stingy Jack.” According to the website, the myth or legend, says that Stingy Jack kept tricking the Devil from being able to take his soul. God watched his behavior, of course, and wouldn’t allow him into Heaven once Jack died. Well, the Devil didn’t want him either as it turns out (can’t imagine why) or rather the deal always worked out that the Devil couldn’t claim Jack’s soul and the Devil actually kept to his word. So there Jack was, dead and without a place to go apparently.

What the Devil did do though, was give Jack a burning coal and sent him off into the dark night. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and wandered aimlessly. To keep Jack away, the story has it people could carve scary faces into various vegetables or fruit, such as pumpkins. A light was placed inside to shine and keep Jack away. Jack was eventually known as Jack of the Lantern, eventually shortened to Jack O’Lantern.

The things people are able to do with pumpkins now is virtually ridiculous if you ask me. I love it, but holy cow! It’s pretty amazing. As for Halloween, I love it. I think one of the things I really loved about it as a kid, and now as an adult, is that it’s a chance to be someone else for a night. This doesn’t mean I want to give up who I am, but for once, you can pretend to walk in someone else’s shoes and not worry about certain things. It’s fun to see who everyone else would like to be also. Then of course, there’s the movies and the music and the general atmosphere of fall and all things autumn related.

Tim Burton is wonderfully wicked at telling some genuinely morbid stories and yet, at their core, they’re really quite sweet. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Corpse Bride” are pretty twisted and yet the real story at the root for either are really pretty human and reasonably relatable. I have a feeling only ghosts can relate to “Beetlejuice” but that’s okay. Ghosts need to relate to something also.

I wish you all… a very Happy Halloween! Yes happy… not terrifying or anything of that nature. Get a good scare with a movie or two, but also, think back on the Celts, think to what the future may hold. May those of us lucky enough to have loved ones who are still looking out for us from above or beyond, help guide us to happy futures.


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