Jack-o’-lanterns have certainly evolved over the years.  In years-gone-by, most were carved with toothy smiles and simple triangle eyes and noses.  They were little gourds who welcomed Halloween trick-or-treaters with bright eyes and a cheerful smile.  But times have changed significantly. 

Over the years, Halloween decorations have become less cheerful and more fearful. Halloween has gone from a one day and night celebration to a whole month of preparing for the 31st day.  Coffins and skeletons decorate lawns. Orange lights and spider webs adorn trees and bushes, and there are many Halloween costume parties for both children and adults. Halloween is no longer simply a few nighttime hours of children’s playful trick-or-treating. 

So what’s the origin of Halloween? And, what’s the story of the jack-o’-lantern?

Halloween Origins

It’s well known that Halloween has a spiritual origin, albeit a dark one.  The tradition comes from the ancient festival of Samhain, originating with the Celts who lived 2,000 years ago, in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. 

The Celtic new year began on November 1 with the day marking the end of the harvest, the beginning of the cold winter, and the beginning of a season thought to be darkness and death. Celtic people believed that on the eve of the new year, October 31st, the realm of the dead was opened and ghosts arose to walk the earth.  On the eve of the new year, the Celts wore costumes of animal heads and skins and burned sacrifices (crops & animals) to their deities, hoping to appease them and to ward off evil spirits.

The Roman Conquest

By 43 A.D. the Celtic territory was conquered by Rome. Soon after Roman beliefs and festivals were merged into the October 31st celebration of Samhain. 

In 609 A.D, Pope Boniface IV established the Catholic feast of All Martyrs Day on May 13th; and in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III expanded the festival to include all saints (church ordained saints) and moved the observance to November 1st.  Later, around 1000 A.D. the church honored all the dead by designating November 2nd as All Souls’ Day. (read more about Oct 31st, Nov 1st & 2nd)

Because the Middle English name for All Saints’ Day was Alholowmesse, the celebration was called All-hallows or All-hallowmas. And the night before All Hallows, which was also the traditional night of the Celtic Samhain, became known as All-Hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. 

Why Carved Pumpkins for Jack-o-lanterns?

The ages-old legend about jack-o’-lanterns doesn’t include a pumpkin. It’s about a man and a turnip.

The legend tells of an Irish man named Stingy Jack who tricked the Devil into promising not to take his soul at his death.   When Stingy Jack died, he went to Heaven. But he was not allowed into Heaven because of all the bad things he had done during his lifetime.  Stingy Jack was then sent to the Devil, who could not let him into Hell because he had promised not to take his soul.  Without admittance into Heaven or Hell, Jack was sentenced to wander in darkness for all eternity. Knowing this, the Devil gave Stingy Jack an ember  to light his way in the darkness.  Stingy Jack hollowed out a turnip to serve as a lantern to carry the ember as he wandered. That’s the legend of how the jack-o’-lantern originated.

Simply a Legend

Now, don’t throw out your jack-o’-lanterns. This is simply a folk-lore legend, and clearly, it’s not true. We can easily see the problems with this legend, beginning with the Devil promising not to take Stingy Jack’s soul.  The Devil can’t take anyone’s soul.  The soul belongs to God.  Also, the Devil has no control over who enters Hell.  Hell was created for the Devil and his angels. He is not the gatekeeper of Hell. Furthermore, the Devil would have no problem breaking his promise. And it’s not likely the Devil would give Stingy Jack an ember for a lantern to light his way. Acts of kindness is not his way.

The only sound doctrine is that Stingy Jack’s bad deeds on earth kept him out of Heaven. The Bible tells that every human, in their lifetime, has a long list of bad deeds (we call them sins).  Only if one repents and trusts in Christ are those sins forgiven and washed away. And only then can one receive the righteousness of Christ, making one worthy to enter Heaven.  Without having his bad deeds forgiven, it’s accurate to say that Stingy Jack could not be admitted into Heaven.

Jack-o’-lanterns in America

The tradition of carving a turnip for a lantern was brought to America by Irish and Scottish immigrants.   It’s believed the carving of pumpkins as jack-o’-lanterns arose due to a shortage of turnips and gained popularity around 1820 when the character of the Headless Horseman, in Washington Irving’s  “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” was depicted with a carved pumpkin head.  The earliest record of a pumpkin jack-o’-lantern was in an 1834 newspaper.

In our time, most people have no knowledge of the history of the jack-o’-lantern, but most have childhood memories of carving them —  usually with an upturned, toothy smile and triangle-shaped eyes and nose.  Simple as those faces were, with a candle inserted, the jack-o-lantern’s Halloween night greeting was a cheerful one. 

In recent decades, jack-o’-lantern’s faces are more varied, and often more sinister looking.  Gruesome faces are created by simply turning the triangle eyes sideways, changing the grin to be a grimace, or carving other details that convey fright.  Gone is the cheerful jack-o’-lantern’s greeting, and in its place is an illuminated face that fits in well with the scary, frightful, dark side of the night.

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

If, or how, one celebrates Halloween is a personal decision.  The Bible does not address our man-made holidays and celebrations.  But the Bible does clearly warn against any activity that might promote sinful behavior. 

We are children of the Light. Therefore, on All Hallows Eve, when many celebrate darkness and death, let your light shine bright.  Maybe this year you can be bold and greet your trick-or-treaters with a “Jesus-lantern.”  A true Light in the darkness.

   

 

 

 

 

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