Halloween is almost upon us. Soon, people all around the country will begin preparing to celebrate this strangest of festivals. Yards and porches will begin to transform from quaint family homes into haunted houses and misty graveyards. Carved pumpkins will appear on door steps and line picket fences, their malevolent grin and flaming eyes will stare at us as we make our way from house to house this October 31st. But where did the tradition of carving these strange little icons of Halloween, begin?
The Jack-O-Lantern can be traced back to its ancestral roots in Ireland, in the early 18th Century. Legend there says that a blacksmith named Jack, who was a renowned drinker, had used up all his money at the local pub. Refusing to serve the drunk man unless he could pay for his grog, the barman told Jack to leave and come back only when he could pay for his booze. Incensed, Jack is said to have yelled that he would sell his soul to the devil for just one more drink.
Now here is where the legend might take a turn into the land of fable, because at the very moment that Jack yelled that he was willing to make his pact with the devil, Lucifer himself is said to have appeared in front of the stunned pub goers, in a puff of fire and brimstone.
The devil had heard Jack's plea and agreed to take the deal: he would take the blacksmith's soul in exchange for one more drink. As Jack finished his drink the devil is said to have turned himself into a coin in payment and Jack, who is not as stupid as we might have first believed, scooped him up and threw him into his purse along with his silver crucifix.
With Satan trapped in his purse, our wily hero made a new deal with the devil: If Satan would give Jack ten more years on earth, he would free the devil. Not in much of a position to bargain at this point, the King of Hell agrees and is promptly freed, only to disappear in a rage, leaving nothing but a quickly dissipating pall of smoke.
Ten years pass quickly for Jack and sure enough, ten years to the second, the devil comes to collect that which was promised to him. Not ready to give up his soul just yet, Jack convinces the devil to climb a nearby apple tree with him to enjoy a final apple before his time is up. As the devil climbs the tree, Jack whips out his knife and quickly carves a crucifix into its bark, trapping the devil once again. Jack, having the upper hand, makes yet another deal with the devil, this time obtaining a promise that Satan will give him his soul back and never bother him again in exchange for his freedom, not being in much of a position to argue, Satan agrees.
When Jack did finally die and made his way to the pearly-gates he was stopped from entering, the legend says. His wicked ways in life had assured that he would never gain entry into Heaven. Unwanted in Heaven, Jack made his way to the only other place that he thought would take him Hell. But he was not wanted there either. Satan had a long memory and would keep his side of the bargain that they had made all those years ago: he would not lay claim to Jack's soul.
Renounced by both Hell and Heaven, Jack was faced with no other option but to return to Earth, but before he left, he begged Satan to help him wend his way through the darkness that separated the two worlds. Apparently not as bad an individual as he has been made out to be, the Devil relented and placed an ember of Hell in a turnip so that Jack would have a source of light to help make his way.
With the hellfire burning brightly inside the turnip, Jack and his hellish lantern returned to earth, doomed to wander the lands for all eternity.
The story of Jack is just one of the legends surrounding this holiday. The history of Halloween is a fascinating one, worth investigating.