November 7, 2008

The Myth Behind the Jack O'Lantern

The term Jack O'Lantern or Jack of the Lantern first appeared in print in 1750 and referred to a night watchman or a man carrying a lantern. However a tale from Irish folklore tells us of a trickster named Jack.

One night, in a pub, Jack had the misfortune to run into the Devil. Very drunk, Jack exchanged one last drink for his soul. The Devil changed into a sixpence to pay the bartender, but Jack pocketed the coin in a bag along with a silver cross knowing that the Devil could not change back so near to the sign of the cross. Once under Jack's thumb, and in his purse, the Devil agreed not to come for Jack's soul for another ten years.

Ten years later, walking on a country road, Jack came across the Devil ready to collect Jack's soul. Not willing, but pretending to comply, Jack asked the Devil if he would climb an apple tree first and pass him down an apple. The Devil, with nothing to lose, climbed the tree, but as he was plucking the requested apple, Jack pulled out his knife and carved the sign of the cross in the tree's trunk. The Devil was unable to come back down until Jack made the Devil agree that he would never take his soul.

After Jack died, he was not permitted into Heaven because of his evil ways. He was also denied access to Hell because he had tricked the Devil. Jack asked, "But where am I to go?" And the Devil replied, "Back to where you came from".

The Devil gave him a single ember from the fires of Hell to light his way through the freezing blackness. As Jack walked his never-ending journey as punishment for his trickery, he carried a burning coal inside a turnip to help him see along the roads as he traveled. Soon he was known as "Jack of the lantern" or Jack O'Lantern.

(Turnips were originally used as Jack's lanterns. However, immigrants to America, found pumpkins more plentiful than turnips.)

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