Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Halloween History Fact of the Day: Turnips

When I first read David J. Skal's "Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween," something that struck me the most was something I'd heard about but never given much thought to. 

 Of all the iconography surrounding my beloved season of Halloween, the image of the jack o'lantern, the orange glow of the imaged carved into a hollow pumpkin emanating from the candle inside, is perhaps the single most widely used image of the season. But the pumpkin was not always Jack's first choice. 

 The Irish brought the tradition of the Jack O'Lantern to America, where the hundreds of years old Irish legend of the Jack O'Lantern has brought us the orange glow we so love today. 

 The legend goes something like this. Many years ago, in Ireland, lived Stingy Jack. Stingy Jack was rotten. He was a miserable old man, a drunk, with a particular fancy for playing tricks of everyone. His family, his friends, his neighbors-- even the Devil himself. One day during his trick, he conned the Devil into climbing a an apple tree. Once Jack had the Devil up in the apple tree, he placed crosses all around the trunk of the tree, preventing the Devil from ever climbing down. At this point, the Prince of Darkness did some of his own trickery, and accepted Jack's offer to not take his soul upon death in place of removing the crosses so he could get down. Jack did this, and the Devil was able to come back down to earth. 

 When Jack finally died, he met Saint Peter at Heaven's gates. Peter informed him that he was too cruel, and had lived too miserable a life to ever make it into paradise. So, Jack descended to Hell, where he met the Devil again, and the Devil kept his word. He would not allow Jack to enter hell, and take his soul. 

 Scared, Jack had nowhere to go. From then on until the end of time, he would be forced to wander the ephemeral darkness between heaven and hell. Jack asked the Devil how he could leave hell, being that there was nothing but darkness and he had no light. In response, the Devil tossed him an ember from the fires of hell, and Jack placed the ember in a turnip he had been carrying, for it was one of his favorite foods. From that night forward, Jack was doomed to wander the earth, without a resting place, lighting his way with the ember in his turnip. 

Image: edtadem.com

 On All Hallow's Eve, Irish households would hallow our turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets, and place candle lights inside them to help ward off evil spirits, and keep nasty old Jack away. And in the 1800s, when Irish immigrants came in waves to America, they discovered the pumpkin, and how much larger and sturdier a canvas it was to carve for Jack's ember. 

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