Halloween Symbols and Jack-O-Lantern

Tuned in:  Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil

images-2Halloween traditions have their early origins rooted in pagan customs from Celtic-speaking countries and Celtic Christianity.  It is believed that the Celtic festival of Samhain, pronounced Sahwin, and Old Irish for ‘summer’s end’ marked the close of harvest and the beginning of the winter months, a time representing death.  It was held on or between October 31 and November 1.  For the Celts the night of Samhain allowed the spirits of the dead to return to earth to destroy crops and make mischief.

The word Halloween connects to Christian holy days.  Halloween (Hallowe’en) means ‘hallowed’ or ‘holy’ evening.  Derived from a Scottish term All Hallows’ Eve (the evening before All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day on November 1) ‘the word ‘eve’ is even in Scots and is contracted to e’en or as we better know it, een.  In time the All, s from Hallows, and v from even was dropped and evolved into Halloween.

All Martyrs Day originated in AD 609 with Pope Boniface and was first celebrated on May 13.  By the eighth century it had become All Saints Day and switched by the Catholic Church to November 1 (the same date as Samhain), ‘in order to lessen the number of pilgrims flocking to Rome for this holy day in the summer.’

Different Halloween Symbols have developed over time.  One well-known symbol is the Jack-O-Lantern.  Traditionally, reaching back to the 1700’s, turnips were ‘hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins.’ Guisers, people who moved from house to house in costume or disguise, in order to hide themselves from spirits, ghosts and fairies, carried them.  Part of the ritual was to play pranks or sing songs for food on All Hallows Eve to ward off evil spirits.  The Jack-O-Lantern became an American tradition brought by Irish and Scottish immigrants and the pumpkin replaced the turnip. The Jack-O-Lantern is also connected to a few Irish Christian folk tales.

One story tells of Jack, a shrewd farmer ‘after a night of drinking meets the Devil who he tricks into climbing a tree.  The quick thinking Jack then carves a cross into the trunk of the tree, trapping the devil.  Jack strikes a bargain that the Devil can never claim his soul.  When Jack dies, he is refused entry into Heaven because of his sinful ways.  Keeping his promise, the Devil refuses to let Jack enter hell and throws a live coal straight from the fires of hell at him.  A cold night, Jack places the coal into a hollowed turnip to stop it from going out, and ever since, Jack and his lantern have roamed the earth, looking for a place to rest.’

A second version of the story tells that ‘Jack was being chased by villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met the Devil, who claimed it was time for him to die.  However, the clever thief stalled his death by tempting the Devil with a chance to torment the church-going villagers chasing him.  Jack told the Devil to turn himself into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods.  Later, when the Devil/coin disappeared, the villagers would fight over who had stolen it.  The Devil agreed and turned himself into the coin and jumped into Jack’s wallet only to find himself next to a cross.  Jack shut the wallet tight and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers and he was trapped.’  This version ends like the first with Jack bargaining the Devil’s freedom for his soul, and upon his death, Jack is barred from Heaven and Hell.  When Jack complains that he has no light to see his way, the Devil mockingly tosses him an ember from the fires of Hell that will never burn out.  Jack carves out a turnip, places the ember inside and begins to roam the earth for a resting place.’  This is how he became Jack-O-Lantern.

Do you have a favorite Halloween trick or treat?  Mine—Taffy Apples!!

www.history.com/topics/halloween ; www.halloweenhistory.org

Online Etymology Dictionary: Halloween ; The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed.) Oxford University Press 1989

Donnelly, Mark P. and Diehl, Daniel. Medieval Celebrations. Stackpole Books, 2011

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About cinzia8

Published writer and teacher.
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