His name was “stingy Jack.” He was not only a miser, he was also a drunk, a conniver, a weasel. He was so cunning, he was able to trick the Devil into promising that he would not claim Jack’s soul when he died.
When Jack died, the Devil kept his promise. But Heaven wouldn’t let Jack in, either. Jack was condemned to walk in the darkness between life and death for all eternity. He appealed to the Devil for help and grinning, the Devil tossed him an ember from the fires of Hell. Jack carved out a large turnip and put the coal in it to light his way, and to this day, on All Hallow’s Eve, you may see the ghostly figure of Jack of the Lantern (Jack O’Lantern), wandering the earth, eternally lost between heaven and hell.
So goes a centuries-old Irish myth. To frighten this evil figure (and other ghosts) away on All Hallow’s Eve (Hallow’een), the Irish began to carve scary faces into turnips or potatoes, light them with candles, and place them in their windows or on their doorsteps.
All Hallow’s Eve was a medieval Christian observance of the night before “All Saints Day” on November 1, a day of prayer for the saints of the Church. On this night, October 31, bonfires were lit to symbolize the suffering of souls in purgatory, people went from door to door offering prayers for those souls in exchange for treats, and some engaged in “mumming” or parading around in costumes representing skeletons and ghosts.
Some believe that the origin of Halloween is in the ancient Celtic festival, on October 31, of Samhain, or “summer’s end.” It was believed that on this night, the night that traditionally marked the end of summer and harvest (life) and the beginning of winter (death), the world of the natural and the supernatural blended. Ghosts roamed the earth. It was a fearful, magic time.
Many centuries later, with the rise of the Jack O’Lantern myth, the wisest thing to do on All Hallow’s Eve was to make a Jack O’Lantern to ward off these evil spirits. In the middle of the 1800s, when the Irish came to America, they made their Jack O’Lanterns out of pumpkins, which are native to the Americas and plentiful in the autumn.
Today, of course, Halloween is all in fun, a holiday for children. The Halloween spirits today are grimy little ghosts with tootsie-roll breath. As their mothers have instructed them, they dip their little fingers delicately in the proffered candy bowls and politely take “just one.”
It has taken a couple thousand years, but Halloween has finally evolved from a night of very real horror and terror, to a night filled with the happy shrieks of little make-believe horribles.