I love traditions more than most people. I especially love traditions that are strange and slightly bizarre, like the ones that, if you explained in detail to someone who was not familiar with them, would make you sound like a lunatic.
The approaching Halloween is one of the best holidays for these traditions. Imagine the conversation: We dress up in costumes that make us look scary, silly, or like one of the latest fads. We parade from house to house and get small pieces of candy from strangers. They happily toss them into a plastic pumpkin with a face, just like the ones we have on our front porches. Large gourd-like fruits, that we purchase to not consume, but instead to cut rude shapes in and put a candle inside so that it glows for one night and then sits there and rots until it’s a pile of mush with a hard cap of frost.
If you step back and think about it, the jack o’ lantern is one of the weirdest things we Americans do in October.
But we’re not alone. We learned it from the Irish, who didn’t have pumpkins and instead carved faces in potatoes and large turnips.
The whole reason we make these things is based on an old Irish folk tale about a man named “Stingy Jack.” Stingy Jack, as the story goes, invited the Devil to have a drink with him and tricked him into turning him into a coin which he kept in his pocket, next to a silver cross. The Devil wasn’t happy about this but said he wouldn’t bother Jack for a year if he let him free. The next year, Stingy Jack tricked the Devil by trapping him in a fruit tree. Again, the Devil wasn’t happy about this and he swore he would never claim his soul if he was set free.
Eventually, Jack died. God wouldn’t allow him into heaven, and the Devil wouldn’t take him, either. Instead, he sent Jack off with only a hot coal to light his way. Jack put it in a hollowed out turnip and apparently has been roaming the earth ever since. The Irish people called him Jack of the Lantern, or for short, Jack o’ Lantern.
From there, people of Ireland and wherever the story traveled began placing their own faces carved out of beets and turnips and put them in windows and on doorsteps to scare away Stingy Jack and any other demons who may have ticked off the Devil at some point.
When Irish people immigrated to America, they found these giant native pumpkins that were just perfect for their crazy tradition, and the jack o’ lantern as we know it was born.
And here I just like to do it for the roasted seeds and flinging pumpkin goop at my kids.
Originally written 10.16.16