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A Halloween Treat–The Story of the Jack-O’-Lantern

I discovered this treat of a tale when I was teaching ESL students about American holidays. Many of the Asian students were quite puzzled by Halloween in particular, and they enjoyed discovering the Celtic roots of the tradition as much as I did! As a teacher, I chose a credible source for the story, and then as a storyteller I added more drama and fun, along with some visual aids. It became an annual favorite with the students, and a highlight for me as well.

I’m in a different place this year, and miss the chance to share the story with a live audience. Next year I’ll make a recording to post here, but for THIS Halloween, you can just settle back with your own Jack-O’-Lantern, channel your finest Irish brogue, and savor:

Our man Stingy Jack was a blacksmith in the Old Country of Eire, tight with his money and a cheat to his customers, but a great one for a drink (or ten) at the pub. One evening–on a night much like this one, my dears–while he was having his usual pint, who should come through the door but the Devil himself! Jack, not afraid in the least, invited the Devil to have a drink right along with him. But true to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to put out his own coin for the drinks. Ever a sly and tricksy man, he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a sixpence coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks—though the Devil required Jack’s own soul in return (a bargain with long consequences, as we’ll see). Once the Devil silvered himself into the sixpence and jingled upon the bar, Jack was so enticed by the sight of that extra shiny coin that he put it into his pocket. But he kept it next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into himself. The Devil cursed and raged at Jack in a most unpleasant way– though the effect was dulled by the squeaky, tinny sound of his sixpence voice!–and Jack eventually got tired of the fussing and freed him, under the condition that he would not bother Jack at all nor try to claim his soul for ten full years.

And so ten Octobers came and went. As the 10th October drew near to a close, Jack once again ran into the Devil as he strode down a lonely country road. The Devil was quite eager to claim what was due him, but our Jack had other ideas. Jack thought quickly and said to the Devil in his meekest voice, “Very well, I’ll go, but before I do, would you do me the great favor of fetching me an apple from this tree we’re standing under, as my last meal before an eternity in hell?” He pointed to the choicest apple high above them. The Devil, sure of his prey and thinking he had nothing to lose, obligingly climbed up and up into the tree after the apple Jack had selected.

When he was nearly up on the branch with the apple, Jack in a flash carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark! Now the Devil could not come back down, and OH, how that Devil howled and cursed at Jack! Apples withered and rained down at the horrible sounds, and all the dogs in the county started in howling. But there was not a thing more that Devil could do. So Jack, very pleased with himself indeed, made the Devil promise that never again would he ask Jack for his soul. Seeing no other choice, the Devil reluctantly agreed–with a few more choice curses to relieve his frustration–and Jack changed the carving to another shape so the Devil could leave the tree. Which he did, in a fiery flash that burned the tree where it stood and singed Jack’s hair a wee bit in the process.

Well, not all that long afterward, Jack up and died. When he attempted to enter the pearly gates, Saint Peter and the guardian angels shooed him away, saying, “Away with you, Stingy Jack! We’ll not have such an unsavory and unloving one as you in heaven. Go on and see if the Devil will take you!” So down he went into the hell he’d tried to avoid. But the Devil, still sullen and angry about the trick Jack had played on him—and keeping his word not to claim Jack’s soul—would not allow Jack into hell.

Now Jack was in a very bad way indeed, not able to go to heaven OR hell, and for once his wit and tricksiness were of no use to him. So Jack in despair asked the Devil, “Where then should I go?” The Devil only snarled, “Right back where you came from!” Well, the way back from hell to our world was very, VERY dark, and Jack had no inkling how he’d find his way in such thick darkness. So he lost all pride and begged the Devil to at least give him a light for the long journey.

The Devil thought a bit, then with a wicked grin, picked a burning coal right out of the fires of hell and tossed it to Jack. “Let this be your light and good riddance to you!” he crowed. Jack let the coal sit a bit while he carved out a turnip he had in his pocket. Then he stuffed the coal inside, and eventually found his way back to Earth. And on the Earth he’s been roaming ever since, trying to find a house to settle in and more people to cheat! As his story spread, the Irish people who saw him on dark nights began to refer to the ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and finally, “Jack O’Lantern.”

Now, gentle readers, remember that in the Celtic lands people believed that spirits and ghosts could enter their world on Halloween, for the “thin places” between the realms would get even thinner and allow free passage from one side to the other. These spirits and ghosts would be attracted to the comforts of their earthly lives, which could cause no end of trouble to the people they were haunting. Those not wanting to be visited would set food and treats out to appease the roaming spirits, and if the people themselves had to leave their homes, they’d wear costumes and masks to keep the spirits from recognizing and bothering them!

To further deter the pestiferous spirits, fathers and children began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits.  As Celtic immigrants came to the shores of America, they brought the jack-o’-lantern story and carving tradition with them. They soon found that pumpkins, native to America and unknown in the Old Country, made tip-top jack-o’-lanterns. They were not only bigger than any they’d had back home,  they were softer and easier to carve than turnips and potatoes! And so the ever-adaptable Celts improved on their own tradition and started a new one in their new land.

Now, every year thousands of pumpkins are carved with faces or other designs, lit up with candles and placed on porches or in windows. But their purpose is no longer to frighten away Stingy Jack, but to welcome trick-or-treaters. A kinder, gentler intent, to be sure!

So now we’ve had the tale all told, and glad we are that it’s Jack and not us that are left roaming the earth as ghosts for endless ages! And yet, this Halloween, whenever you spy a Jack-o’-lantern, take a moment to spare a compassionate thought for old Stingy Jack and his lonely, wandering end. Oh, and also be sure to remember:  never try tricking the Devil yourself!

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