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  • Writer's pictureJoey McCollough

How Jack O'lanterns earned their place in Halloween.



Jack o'Turnip?

Yes, that's correct, the original Jack o'lanterns were carved from Turnips.

Traditional Irish Jack O'Lantern
Traditional Irish Jack O'Lantern made out of a turnip.

As the story goes, an old drunken trickster named Jack who loved paying evil games on people to fool them lived several hundred years ago in Ireland. He was able to fool the Devil himself by convincing him to climb up a tree. While he made his way to the top of the tree, Jack placed crucifixes around the bottom to prevent the Devil from climbing down. Jack held Satan in this tree until a promise was made to never take Jack's soul to Hell after he departed the life of the living. Once agreed upon, the Devil made his way out of the tree and journeyed back to the underworld.

As the years slipped by Jack was aging but never gave up his ways tomfoolery and pranks. Upon the time he left his living body he rose to the heavens and was greeted by St. Peter. He was not allowed into heaven because of his evil nature and was cast down to the underworld. There he was met by the Devil who kept his word and sent Jack of to wonder the never-ending darkness between the Heaven and Hell. Jack asked how he was to see in the dark, the Devil threw him one of the glowing embers from the pits of Hell to light his way. Jack placed the ember inside a carved out turnip and used it as a lantern to light his way through the darkness of night for eternity. The Irish people began to refer to him as Jack of the Lantern. This eventually was shortened down and given a proper Irish name "Jack O'Lantern".

The people of the land began carving turnips and placing candles in them and setting their lanterns out at night to keep Jake away. This eventually became a way to keep evil spirits away from their homes and families.

There are many versions of this fable, but they all follow the same story line. The British began carving faces in large beets to use as Jack O'lanterns. Immigrants from Ireland migrating to the United States in the late 1800s quickly discovered pumpkins. They were much easier to carve and candles fit inside with great ease. This was the beginning of the Jack O'Lantern as we know it.

Vintage plastic blow Jack O'Lantern
Vintage plastic blow Jack O'Lantern

The Jack O'Lantern has become the symbol of Halloween. It stirs feelings of excitement, fun, fear, and even nostalgia. The 1950s saw the Jack O'Lantern grow into the status it is today with the plastic blow pumpkins your grandparents had on their front porches. The classic image of suburbia all dressed up for Halloween is almost sublime. White picket fenced houses with Jack O'Lantern adorned porches with all the kids running up and down the sidewalk dressed as their favorite monster or ghost. Everyone of them holding a plastic Jack O'lantern bucket ready to receive their bounty of candy from the evenings' adventures. This is where Halloween really developed in The United States, and the Jack O'lantern became the symbol of the holiday.

Sleepy Hollow is another great image of the Jack O'Lantern burned into our heads. The image of the headless horseman galloping down the dirt hoof trodden path with his cape gracefully flowing from his collar holding a flaming Jack O'lantern in hand is an image that sends chills down your spine. This classic story has been told in live action movies to an animated Walt Disney film. Once again the Jack O'Lantern in the forefront, but this time having a more sinister appearance.

The modern-day usage of the carved out pumpkin have ventured from its original intent of deterring spirits from beyond. The Jack O'Lantern has morphed into an evil creature of its own. Some versions are attached to the top of tall lanky rotted skeletons with a demonic overtone, while others have strayed more to the cute kid-friendly side. One of the latest trends that have emerged is white or pastel colored pumpkins, some of these even come with shiny spikes down the sides.

Pumpkin carving itself has excelled into new heights with very elaborated works of art being cared into the sides of them. Contests take place every year on cable networks that showcase pumpkin carving competitions. The standard Jack O'Lantern face is no longer adequate for these competitions. The skills that have evolved with carving certain areas thinner for light to show through differently and even adding LED lighting and fog effects have made these works of art exciting.

Jack O'lantern in the fog
Jack O'lantern in the fog

From its early days as a meager turnip to a giant large hollowed-out pumpkin, the Jack O'lantern has become the symbol of Halloween. They spark emotions of excitement when they first appear in the stores towards the end of summer, and even bring feelings of sadness when they are ravaged off the store shelves the day after Halloween. But one thing is for certain, the Jack O'Lantern is the Pumpkin King...

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