Seasonal Sunday Legends: Jack O’ Lanterns

This time of year, pumpkins have invaded America.

The corner store down the street has a giant display of them right under their signs advertising fish sandwiches and the current New York State lotto odds. You can’t drive down any given street in Buffalo without running into pumpkins, either real or imaginary, often carved into fanciful (or bizarre, Buffalo likes bizarre jack o’ lanterns) shapes.

One source of the legend surrounding our fascination with carving up gourds comes from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. Jack was a man that never wanted to have to pay for anything-hence the name-that managed to trick the Devil several times over in order to get out of paying his debts. Eventually, the Devil managed to out-think Jack but doomed him in the process: Jack was allowed into neither heaven nor hell once he died, his actions proving to be too much for either the Devil or God. However, the Devil decided to give Jack one small favor and gave him a coal to place within a carved turnip so Jack could see where he was wandering.

The earliest forms of the Jack O’ Lantern were actually carved root vegetables such as potatoes or beets. The lanterns were used to scare away any of the roaming spirits said to be freed on Samhain once the veil thinned. Eventually the pumpkin became common once the tradition moved into the States. Originally, the jack o’ lantern was a generic fall decoration in the States, showing up with as much frequency at Thanksgiving as it did at Halloween. It wouldn’t be until Halloween became a major fall holiday in the early 20th century that it would make the jump to a Halloween decoration.

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