Beyond Jack O’Lantern: the true origin of Halloween or Samhain pumpkins

When we talk about Halloween or Samhain pumpkins, we usually find their origin attributed to the legend of Jack O’Lantern, but if we want to go deeper into this tradition, we find a quite different reality.

Jack O'Lantern Pumpkin Samhain

The origin of Jack O’Lantern

Between the 17th and 18th centuries, the legend of Jack O’Lantern became popular throughout the British Isles, which many say is an ancient legend of Celtic folklore but that we only find on these islands and with testimony no earlier than those centuries. The name Jack O’Lantern literally means “the Jack of the lantern” and it began to be used in reference to the wisps that were also called “Will O’the Wisp”. Possibly the name was changed by the attempt to Christianize the pagan Samhain that ended up becoming All Hallows’ Evening and later Halloween.

The wisps are small bluish flames that occur in nature when putrefactive matter expels a gas that burns in contact with the oxygen in the air. It’s common to see they in swamps or cemeteries but they can also occur in forests or fields. Formerly it was thought that the wisps were spirits that inspired all kinds of legends. The truth is that they were not misguided either, because the will-o-wisps occur at a time of transformation of matter, of rebirth, and we know in paganism that the material and the spiritual are part of the same reality. The most famous legend about wisps was the one that eventually gave rise to that of Jack O’Lantern.

Stingy Jack: The Legend of Jack O’Lantern

There are many versions of the Jack O’Lantern legend but they all have many points in common, here I am going to tell only one of them, which had already passed through the filter of Christianity. Stingy Jack was a blacksmith who was caught one night robbing the neighbors of his town. They began to chase him and then the Devil appears to him telling him that it was his time to die. However Jack managed to tempt the Devil by offering him the opportunity to torment the villagers who were persecuting him and who were very regulars at the local church. Jack proposed that he become a gold coin with which he would pay for what he had stolen and later the Devil could disappear and make the Christians fight and distrust each other to see who had kept the coin for him.

The Devil accepted the plan, turned into a coin and jumped into the bag where Jack carried what he had stolen. What the Devil didn’t know is that inside the bag there was a cross that Jack had just stolen. Jack had closed the bag tightly and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers. Jack tells him that he will only free him if he agrees to never take his soul and the Devil accepted the deal. Jack, like all living beings, ends up dying, as his life had been full of sin, he couldn’t go up to heaven and, as he had made a pact with the Devil so that he would not take his soul, he couldn’t enter hell either. Jack was left with no place to spend eternity and he asked the Devil where he would go or how he would see his path, since he had no light, and the Devil, mockingly, threw a hellish ember at him. Jack carved one of his turnips (his favorite food), put the ember inside the turnip and began to wander endlessly across the land in search of a place to rest at last. And that is why he is known as Jack O’Lantern, the Jack of the lantern.

From carved turnips to the popularization of pumpkins

The legend of Jack O’Lantern was only known in the British Isles but the success of Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), where pumpkins were linked as substitutes for the decapitated heads of the Headless Horseman, made along with English immigration, in the 19th century the custom of carving pumpkins became popular in the United States. Given the influence of the United States from that time on Western culture through art, pumpkins became the most widespread throughout the world on Halloween.

But the truth is that we can find throughout Europe the custom of carving turnips and beets normally associated with the deceased. In France there are guénels, lanterns carved from beets that are used in the défilé des guénels, a festival that takes place in December around Christmas, although it seems to be a relatively recent holiday and therefore may be influenced by the tradition of Jack O’Lantern.

In almost all of Spain we can find references to the use of beets, turnips, pumpkins and zucchini carved and illuminated with candles with reference to the deceased, especially on the All Hallows’ Day, although there are also traditions that place them on different dates between October and November . These traditions still persist in isolation in some localities, but in most towns they have been lost. Anyway we know that in Cantabria Asturias, Galicia, Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, Catalonia and Aragon were used.

In several areas of Italy we also find the carving of pumpkins and beets with and without relation to the deceased, the conca e mortu, or the zozzo are just examples of this. As there is no Celtic influence in Italy, the theory that said this tradition of carving turnips or gourds is of Celtic origin loses its weight. In fact, there are some experts who say that it may have its origin in the Roman feralia lucem, a lights that were used as an offering to the deceased.

The magical and spiritual sense of carved pumpkins and their practicality

There were a number of reasons why there was a need to leave candles overnight on All Hallow’s Day, but there are some practical ones that would also be important to consider. Thanks to the oral tradition that we conserved and that I have been able to know of small towns in the regions of Tierra de Campos, Sanabria, Benavente y los Valles, Sayago and Tierra de Alba, vegetables were not always used to house the candles.

There are stories that tell us how it was customary to exploit of cattle skulls to put a candle inside on All Hallow’s Day on the borders of the fields and in the streets of the towns. Also that the use of candles was not so widespread and that when vegetables were used they used to put water and oil inside with a wick to make an improvised oil lamp. All this makes us think about the practicality of this tradition since the skulls would serve to prevent the candles from being blown out by the wind and the turnips and beets would fulfill that same function in addition to serving as a container for the liquid that would keep the flame alive all night.

But leaving aside that more practical sense, we find that they almost always tend to have a very similar spiritual sense. In some parts the lights were used to guide the spirits on the night of Samhain/All Hallow’s Day either to bring each one to the home of their living relatives or to create a path away from the living and thus avoid they will take them with them to the afterlife. In fact, in some Castilian towns it was said that whoever did not leave a candle on this night would be carried by the Hueste de Ánimas (Host of Souls) (which in Galicia is known as the Santa Compaña).

Lights were also placed near barns, fields and farms to prevent spirits from entering or passing through them as it was thought that the deceased would spoil fertility and productivity. Light as an offering was relegated to churches and inside houses with the spread of Christianity, although with the meaning of the Roman feralia lucem.

Nowadays our carved pumpkins, turnips or beets have that double meaning: to guide lost souls and show them a way to go and as an offering. You can use ceramic skulls to house a candle, pumpkins, turnips or carved beets, it all depends on how you feel is best for you and to honor your ancestors, the land where you live and your tradition. If you are going to use a natural vegetable, it would be good if you chose one typical of the area in which you live since this way you would honor not only the deceased but also the spirits of the earth.

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