I don’t just love October because it’s my birthday month.

I love October because there are so many myths and legends associated with these thirty-one days. Myths and legends that began a thousand years before Christianity and extend all the way up to the 1960s. How many months can claim that distinction?

One of my favorite stories is about carved pumpkins, commonly known as Jack O’Lanterns. When Irish immigrants came to the United States, they brought the tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack O’Lanterns with them. But, originally, the Jack O’Lantern wasn’t a pumpkin since pumpkins didn’t exist in ancient Ireland. The original Jack O’Lantern was a turnip which was carved on All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween). A burning ember was placed inside the hallowed-out turnip and carried around the village to keep away any evil spirits. When the Irish ended up in the New World, they discovered that pumpkins were easier to carve into lanterns.

But why did they think that carving root vegetables into lanterns would ward off evil spirits in the first place?

The story begins with a man named Jack who lived in ancient Ireland. Jack was a thief and a trickster who everyone despised. He lived alone and was as stingy as he was mean. One night, while drinking at the local pub, Stingy Jack met the devil. Apparently, the devil offered to buy Jack a drink in exchange for his soul. Jack said yes but when the devil transformed himself into a coin to pay for the drinks, Jack stole the coin and slipped it into his pocket where he kept a silver crucifix. The silver crucifix prevented the devil from changing back and Jack took the devil/coin home in his pocket. It was only after Jack got the devil to agree to wait to take his soul that Stingy Jack freed the devil.

Years later, Stingy Jack saw the devil waiting by an apple tree. The devil wanted Jack’s soul but he stalled for time. Somehow he convinced the devil to climb up the apple tree and get Jack an apple to eat before he left with the devil. But once the devil climbed the tree, Stingy Jack nailed silver crosses to the tree, preventing the devil from coming down. Finally, Jack made the devil promise not to take Jack’s soul when he died and allowed the devil to come down out of the tree.

Many, many years later, Stingy Jack died and stood before the gates of Heaven. Saint Peter told Jack that because he was mean, stingy, and cruel he could not enter Heaven. So Jack went down to Hell but the devil kept his promise and wouldn’t allow Jack in. Jack was now afraid–what was he going to do for all eternity? Not sure what the do, he asked the devil how he could get back to the living world as it was so dark and there was no way out. The devil gave him an ember from the flames of Hell. It was too hot to carry but Jack had a turnip (his favorite food) in his pocket. Jack hollowed out the turnip and placed the ember inside, making it a lantern that helped him find his way. Jack made it back to the land of the living and now wanders the earth without a resting place with only a dim turnip lantern to light the way. The Irish called Jack’s ghost “Jack of the Lantern” which was eventually abbreviated to Jack O’Lantern.

On All Hallow’s Eve, when the veil between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, the Irish people placed a light in carved turnips to keep Stingy Jack, and any other evil spirits, away. Now that Jack O’Lanterns are mainstream October decorations, it’s hard to remember the reason why we carve pumpkins. But when you see scary Jack O’Lanterns on Halloween, try to remember Stingy Jack and his back-fired deal with the devil. Because that’s where it all started.

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  1. Diana Belchase says:

    Loved this, Sharon. Looking forward to more October tales. And Happy Birthday next week, too!

    1. sharonbwray@verizon.net says:

      Thanks so much, Diana! I love writing about these October tales.

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