Celtic tales tied to Halloween traditions

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Jack o’ lanterns from the Museum of the Albemarle collection.


By Jessica Cosmas
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, October 28, 2018

As you plod through your daily routine, have you noticed the crunch of dry leaves underfoot? Or have your eyes met the peculiar stare from a jack o’ lantern?

The sticky, dog days of summer have finally given way to brisk autumn air. This shift in seasons held great significance for the Celts, the ancient inhabitants of the British Isles. Most historians agree that our current concept of Halloween is most closely related to the Celtic holiday of Samhain.

Samhain festivities marked summer’s end with ritual preparations for the impending winter. The pagan Celts believed that this transitional period made their homes vulnerable to other-worldly spirits. To protect themselves from hauntings, some Celts donned animal skins as disguises to confuse the spirits. Others offered sweets in hope of appealing to a spirit’s more charitable nature.

You may recognize that those early practices have evolved into popular Halloween activities like costume-wearing and children harassing strangers for candy. But what of the curious tradition of pumpkin carving?

Ireland has retained much of its Celtic identity, including Samhain superstitions of harmful spirits. The Irish myth of “Stingy Jack” is believed to have given us the term “jack o’ lantern.”

Stingy Jack was a notorious trickster. When the devil came to claim his soul, Jack convinced the devil to grant him a final wish: one last drink. As Jack emptied his cup, he cried poor. The devil agreed to temporarily turn himself into a coin to relieve Jack’s debt. Jack, however, did not settle the bill. Instead he pocketed the devil-coin next to a crucifix, effectively trapping the evil spirit. Jack only allowed the devil to return to his original form when the devil promised not to take Jack’s soul to hell upon his death.

Not long after this episode, Jack died. God refused to let Jack enter the kingdom of Heaven as Jack had dealt with the devil. Forlorn, Jack returned to the devil and readied his soul for eternal damnation. The devil, however, kept true to his promise. The devil turned Jack away, tossing him a burning ember from his infernal home. Jack placed the devil’s parting gift in a carved turnip as a makeshift lantern. Legend has it that Jack still roams the Irish hillside with his glowing turnip, unable to rest his weary soul.

Pumpkin carving is a uniquely American answer to Irish folk customs. When the Irish began to immigrate to the United States in the 1800’s, they brought the story of Stingy Jack and their practice of carving memorial turnips with them. The pumpkin, readily available and novel to the Irish, proved to be a favorable alternative to the turnip. The pulpy flesh of the pumpkin is easier to manipulate than the more compact, crispy turnip. Plus, the refuse of pumpkin jack o’ lanterns can be enjoyed as delicious treats like roasted pepitas or freshly-baked pies!

As you celebrate Halloween this year, remember dear old Jack and try to learn from his folly. Only a fool attempts to cheat death. 

Jessica Cosmas is an Artifact Collections Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.