The Original Jack O’Lantern Wasn’t A Pumpkin

And It Comes With A Great Story

Have you carved and cut your pumpkin and created your own original jack O’Lantern?  Some carved pumpkins, as you can see in these photos taken at Chelsea Market in New York City, are works of art. Abingdon Square Park in Greenwich Village hosts a Halloween Jack O’Lantern contest and the little pocket park is filled with glowing pumpkins with faces of all kinds and a variety of senses of humors.

But … What Was The Original Jack O’Lantern?

The Jack O’Lantern stems from a legend that goes back hundreds of years in Irish history. One version of the story is that a miserable old drunk named Stingy Jack, who liked to play tricks on his family, friends, and even the Devil, tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree and then put crosses around its trunk so the Devil couldn’t get down. Stingy Jack then told the Devil that if he promised not to take his soul when he died he would remove the crosses and let the Devil down.

When Jack died he was told by Saint Peter at the pearly gates of Heaven that he was mean and cruel and had led a miserable and worthless life so he couldn’t enter Heaven. He went down to Hell but the Devil kept his promise and wouldn’t take him in.  Jack was scared and with nowhere to go had to wander around in the darkness between Heaven and Hell. He asked the Devil how he could leave without light to see.  To help him light his way the Devil threw him an ember from the flames of Hell. One of Jack’s favorite foods, which he always had when he could steal one, was a turnip.  He put the ember into a hollowed out turnip and from that day on Stingy Jack, without a resting place, roamed the earth lighting his way with his “Jack O’Lantern.”

All Hallows Eve

Halloween, or the Hallow E’en as it is called in Ireland and Scotland, is short for All Hallows Eve, or the night before All Hallows. “Hallow” is a word of Germanic origin that means “holy” in Old English, All Hallows is now called All Saints in modern English, “saint” being a synonym for “hallow” with Old French and ultimately Latin roots.

Samhain was the last day of the Celtic calendar and was a Pagan harvest festival that honored the dead celebrated on October 31st. All Hallows and Samhain became fatefully intertwined in the 9th century when Pope Gregory IV officially assigned the solemnity of All Hallows (previously celebrated in April by Celtic Christians and May by Italian Christians) to November 1st on the universal church calendar to match the custom of the Frankish King of Aquitaine, Louis the Pious, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

On All Hallows Eve the Irish made Jack O’Lanterns by hollowing out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes, and beets and putting lights in them to keep away both the evil spirits and Stingy Jack.  In the 1800’s when Irish immigrants came to America they discovered that pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve, and pumpkins became our Jack O’Lanterns.

Think About Eating Your Pumpkin, Too

Jumping from legend to fact:  pumpkins are Cucurbitaceae, a family of vegetables that includes cucumbers and melons. They are fat free and can be baked, steamed, or canned.

One cup has about 30 calories and is high in vitamin C, potassium, and dietary fiber and has other nutrients like folate, manganese, and omega 3′s.  Pumpkin is filled with the anti-oxidant beta-carotene which gives it a rich orange hue. It is very versatile and can be added to baked goods and blended with many foods. Pumpkin seeds are delicious, too.  They are a good source of iron, copper, and zinc and a quarter cup naturally adds minerals to your healthy diet.  One cautionary note:  pumpkin is low in calories, pumpkin seeds are not.

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