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Featured Traditions: Jack o' Lanterns

Bad Luck of the Irish
When Linus and Charlie Brown sat in the pumpkin patch all night waiting for the "Great Pumpkin" to come bearing gifts, they may have been confusing their holiday traditions. The grimacing, ugly-faced Jack o' Lanterns are meant to be feared.

The tradition of carving Jack o' Lanterns goes back to ancient times when people believed evil spirits roamed the Earth and returned to their homes in winter. Irish legend tells of a rude, abrasive man named Jack who, upon his death, was not welcomed in Heaven or Hell. "Stingy Jack" had played tricks on the devil himself. Not even welcome in Purgatory, Jack was destined to haunt the Earthly world. He carried a lantern and came to represent souls trying to escape the forthcoming winter.

Pagans in northern Europe held an annual festival to celebrate the harvest and prepare for winter long before Christianity spread to Scotland and Ireland. On the eve of the new year, Celts tried to prevent wayward dead souls from returning to their homes by carving faces on potatoes, rutabagas and turnips, and displaying them around their doors and windows.

All-hallow, or All Holy Saints' Day, has been celebrated in much of Europe for twelve centuries. November 1st was designated to honor Saints and innocent youth, and welcome them back from their graves for visits with family. Offerings were made to their memories and to appease all souls that returned to visit. If not appeased, evil souls were thought to play tricks or wreak havoc. Because cake and sweets were plentiful in prosperous times, children went from house to house asking for treats and threatening the stingy with tricks. From old beliefs, the practices of Pagans and Christians in old Europe formed modern Halloween.

Irish immigrants in the United States carried on the tradition displaying carved Jack o' Lanterns on All Hallows' Eve. But, they carved faces on the gourds native to the land. Pumpkins were an important source of food and materials to the Native Americans and had helped the early colonists survive in the New World. Placing candles inside the gourds symbolized the fires that kept evil spirits away in old Europe.

At the end of Fall, the Halloween celebration represents the time when things die before life returns to the Earth to bloom in Spring. The Jack o' Lantern is associated with the dead who have returned to haunt the Earth through winter carrying lanterns. Local folklore often tells of dark figures holding lanterns along highways and railroads. In the legends, the source of the eerie light can never be found. Ghost stories are as much a part of Halloween as pumpkin pie is to the traditional Thanksgiving feast that follows the Fall harvest.

-- Mark D. Lacy

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