Monday, October 31, 2011


Today, children, we celebrate (or in some cases deplore with dread and loathing) the holiday known as “Halloween” (or, if you wish to be pedantic, “Hallowe’en”). The word was first used in the 16th century, and it is too well known to mention that it derives from “Allhallows Even [Evening],” the night before November 1, the Christian All Saints’ Day, which honors the souls in heaven. (It is not to be confused with All Souls’ Day, November 2, which is for the benefit of the dear departed who haven’t yet made it to heaven but have high hopes.)

One of the customs of Halloween is to display a hollowed-out  pumpkin, with a carved face illuminated by a candle.  It’s called a “jack-o’-lantern.”  So today’s question, trick-or-treaters, is who was Jack?

There are several Irish myths about a disreputable old drunk known as “Stingy Jack,” who got into some kind of dispute with the Devil.  Some tales say it was an argument about who would buy the next drink, and others insist it had to do with the Devil’s climbing a tree to snatch a piece of fruit (shades of Adam and Eve!).  At any rate, the final result of the contretemps was that the Devil agreed that he would never claim Stingy Jack’s soul.

There was just one problem—when Jack died, he found that he wasn’t welcome in heaven, either.  Since the Devil had agreed not to take him, Jack was condemned to roam the earth, and, to help him find his way, the Devil gave him an ember, which Jack placed inside a carved-out turnip and used as a lantern.  The figure of “Jack of the Lantern” was used in the 17th-century to mean a night watchman, and the term was later applied to the ignis fatuus, mysterious lights that appeared over peat bogs.  

To commemorate this legend, it became customary among the Irish, the Scots, and the English to scoop out the flesh and carve faces in potatoes, gourds, beets, and rutabagas, as well as turnips.  When the Irish immigrants came to America, they discovered it was a heck of a lot easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip, and the plentiful autumn crop became the standard for jack-o-lanterns.

The Bard-o’-Lantern of Buffalo Bayou hides on Halloween, lest he be mistaken for a ghoulie or ghostie or long-legged beastie or thing that goes bump in the night. While in hiding, he conjures up incantations like this one:

            I hope I never meet the Devil--
            That would be most alarming,
            For I can tell you, on the level,
            I think I’d find him charming.

            He’d give me power and great riches
            And a big flat-screen TV,
            And send his warlocks and his witches
            To come and wait on me.
            He’d tempt me with Champagne and gin,
            Dark chocolate as well--
            And you can bet that I’d give in,
            And wind up down in hell.

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