Like the other big holidays (namely Thanksgiving and Christmas), Halloween is easily recognizable by the visual language we've developed for it. Pop culture icons of horror, such as the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula and the Wolfman are chiefly synonymous with the celebration as are witches, ghosts, goblins, black cats and creepy, chain-rattling nameless beasts from the Netherworld.
But, to put a face on it, the arguably most recognizable participant in the Halloween festivities is the Jack O'Lantern.
Why, exactly, do we carve out the guts (to make awesomely delicious pie, I might add), cut out hideously terrifying (or silly, or creepy, et. al.) faces in these orange vegetables, fill them with fire and set them precariously close to toddlers and children garbed in super-flammable, department-store costumery? Read on my faithful creepers.
The History of Jack O'Lantern
While there is a long tradition of using vegetables as lanterns in Europe (those crazy Europeans), it wasn't until 1866 that the pumpkin and the jack o'lantern became distinctly associated with Halloween. The pumpkin was in fact associated with the harvest season in general. So the celebration and the pumpkin seem to go hand in hand.
Irish folklore features a character by the name of Stingy Jack, who supposedly captured the Devil with a cross. Long story short, the Devil offered not to take Stingy Jack's eternal soul in exchange for release. When Stingy Jack dies, he's been so bad he's not going to Heaven and Hell can't take him because of his deal with the Devil. Eternally doomed to wander the earth and find his way in the dark, the Devil offers Jack a never-dying ember to see by. Jack quickly carves out a turnip (his favorite food) as a lantern for the ember. Endlessly wandering he became known as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O'Lantern.
Yeah. Real uplifting.
Really, the term 'jack o'lantern' originally meant night watchman, or man with a lantern. There are variations on the story, but perhaps the most interesting is one in which the Devil takes Jack's head. Jack then uses a carved pumpkin as a substitute. Which brings me to our next section. Walk this way.
Well, ol' Jack gets around, doesn't he? From the Headless Horseman to Jack Skellington, the jack o'lantern is the de facto symbol of Halloween. Witches, black cats, nameless shambling hordes of the undead...these all pale in comparison to the awesome might of the flame-filled carved gourd. Seriously, just try and deny it. I dare you.
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