Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween and the Jack O'Lantern

Happy Halloween!

I'm spending my holiday in the library catching up on work I couldn't do yesterday when I was at a ballroom dance competition, so I hope your plans are more exciting than mine.

For Halloween today, I decided to write about something I've always been kind of curious about but never took the time to look up-- What the heck are jack o'lanterns for, anyways?

I love carving pumpkins and make sure to do it every year, but I've never really taken a step back to look at the tradition itself.  You have to admit, it's kind of an odd one.  After some Googling, I managed to find a website called the Pumpkin Nook, which brands itself as the "Internet Shrine and Library for Pumpkins".  Clearly, such a website was bound to explain jack o'lanterns to me.

According to the site, jack o'lanterns come from an Irish legend about a "miserable old drunk" known as Stingy Jack, who played a trick on the Devil by coaxing him into climbing a tree, then surrounding the trunk with crosses so the Devil couldn't get down.  Jack only let him down once the Devil promised not to take his soul when he died.  Unfortunately for Jack, this didn't work out quite as well as he wanted it to.  When he died, St. Peter refused to let him into heaven (perhaps because of the "miserable old drunk" part?) but the Devil kept his promise and refused to let him into hell.  This left Jack to wander the darkness between the two forever, lighting his way with an ember from hell that he carried in a hollowed out turnip (apparently something Jack kept with him regularly).

This legend turned into a tradition in Ireland, with people placing lights in hollowed out turnips and other vegetables outside their doors on Halloween to keep evil spirits away.  Once the Irish started moving to the United States, they discovered pumpkins (native to North America) and started using them for lanterns instead, as they're a lot easier to carve and hollow out than a turnip.

So now you know exactly what you're doing when you carve your next jack o'lantern!  I have to say, modern ones are definitely a lot cooler than a hollowed out turnip is likely to be.  Check out this link for a small glimpse of how awesome jack o'lanterns can be!

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