From Irish legends to his current place in our celebrations, retrace with us the history of this strange character.
On October 31, you may be celebrating the All Hallows-Even, hear here, All Hallows Eve. A festival inherited from the Celts who celebrated the beginning of the dark season, one of the two annual seasons. As opposed to the light season, this new period allowed the passage from one year to the other while opening our world to the world of the dead for one night: the feast of the Samain (or Samhain). The event became very popular in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and gave rise to many legends, including the legend of Jack-o’-Lantern. The name may not mean anything to you, but you’ve already met the character: the pumpkin that you so patiently decorate every year. Far from always being as round as orange, the frightening Halloween figure takes us back to Irish legends.
According to old Irish tales, Jack was once a little respected man: drunk, greedy, mean and playful, he was often portrayed as a blacksmith or blacksmith’s marshal. A simple selfish man, he met the Devil at a tavern binge and while the Devil was trying to recover Jack’s soul, the blacksmith first invited him to share a drink. Forcing his hand, he managed to convince the devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drink before locking the coin in his purse. Decorated with a silver cross, the man’s purse prevented the devil from regaining his freedom. After keeping the evil prisoner prisoner, Jack decided to release him on the condition that the prisoner promised not to claim his soul until 10 years had passed.
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The Devil has a good memory, he came to meet Jack 10 years after their first interview, claiming what he thought was his. Jack asked him to accept one last wish, to get him an apple freshly picked from a tree. The devil, apparently a gullible bit, climbed up an apple tree to pick the fruit. Jack, for his part, simply carved a cross on the tree to block the Devil before making him promise never to return for his soul and never to draw him to his kingdom. With no other choice, the devil accepted. If Jack managed to masterfully get out of a catastrophic situation, it was without knowing that his pact with the devil would condemn him to wander for all eternity. Indeed, after his days were over, Jack was refused entry to heaven because his life was too far removed from religious principles. When he presented himself to the devil, he had no choice but to deny him, in turn, access to his kingdom. Without a goal, he still managed to obtain a piece of burning coal which he placed in a turnip that had been dug up beforehand. The turnip was changed into a lantern, and Jack became Jack of The Lantern and then Jack-O’-Lantern, destined to wander until Judgment Day.
The history of Jack-O’-Lantern knows many versions and for good reason: the feast of the Samain goes back more than 2500 years and before its recovery by the Catholic Church (around the year 900), the celebration already included many tales and legends influenced by natural phenomena. In the 1500s, Jack was used to explaining some of these phenomena and in particular, some frightening apparitions that science did not yet explain as will-o’-the-wisp (the latter finds its place in many legends around the world). The lights that we know come from the decomposition of plants, frightened the less warned and one of the explanations of their existence came back to Jack: it was said that it appeared every year around the Night of the Samhain.
Tales and beliefs were perpetuated, by the Irish, through time: to deceive the dead, they would blend into the decor by dressing up in disguises inspired by mythical and horrific characters. Jack also found his place there and to celebrate, turnips were emptied before being given a face in the hope that a glance at the object would make the evil spirits flee. At the same time, the children were in charge of collecting the offerings for the dead: as this was the only night of the year when the world of the dead was open to the living, it was necessary to make sure that nothing would upset them. It was also a good way to start the New Year under a lucky star.
The discovery of territory, and in particular the discovery of the new continent, allowed legends to spread throughout the world and the huge wave of immigration that the Irish people experienced in the years 1845-1850 gave Jack a whole new life. Indeed, at that time, the country was experiencing a great shortage of potatoes and a horrible famine was raging. In order to have a chance of survival, 700,000 Irish set sail for America, not without taking their Celtic traditions and heritage with them. Unfortunately for poor Jack, the turnips do not always survive the bad weather of the new world and soon they will have to find a replacement. The pumpkin, on the other hand, grows better and is easier to hollow out: it will gradually take its place at the heart of the celebrations and replace the turnip in the legend of Jack-O’-Lantern.
Through the generations, children will change the celebration and very soon, the pumpkin itself begins to bear Jack’s name. It is in the 1800s that the name will be definitively applied to it, but it will still be necessary to wait until the end of the 19th century for the fruit to find a place of importance in seasonal decorations. One of the most significant events in its history dates back to 1892 when the mayor of Atlanta decided to organize a big Halloween party, inviting the city’s top chefs. In setting up his party, he made sure that many pumpkins were prepared and used to decorate his party. The mayor will be copied and year after year, Jack will find his place on the porches of American houses.
Of course, with this newfound fame and usefulness, the character moved away…
beliefs to get into popular culture. Today, Jack has his own character in the Marvel comics (he was created in 1981), parks are dedicated to him and after having somewhat disappeared from the long list of Halloween costumes, he is gradually resurfacing. He is also found in some animated films: Tim Burton, while writing the poems that would later be used to write the screenplay for Mister Jack’s Strange Christmas, drew inspiration from the blacksmith for the name of his hero.
It doesn’t stop there because the list of characters based on this horrific figure is getting longer every year, including in video games. Whether it’s the Mad King from the Guild War video game saga, Pokémon Pitrouille, Pumpkin Head from The Legend of Zelda, Hecarim from League of Legends, Jacqu’O from Animal Crossing or the Archidemon from Soul Sacrifice, they’re all directly or indirectly inspired by the Celtic character. It’s the same on the big screen and more precisely in the horror register where Jack usually wears a pumpkin head to attack poor innocent victims. Halloween, released in 1978 and directed by John Carpenter, will have moreover marked the history of the genre by introducing the famous pumpkin in its opening scene.
From pumpkin man to pumpkin man, Jack-O’-Lantern will have come a long way from pagan legends to the present day. Traveling through time and the world, he remained a key element of Celtic culture, before settling comfortably in the culture of the United States. Today, this land of emigrants celebrates its own version of Samhain Night every year, never forgetting to pay tribute to the man who twice cheated the devil.