Samhain–considered the witch’s new years to some–was often revered as the one night out of the whole year when the dead could pass from our world to the next. Traditionally, candles would be lit and placed in windows to light the way for loved ones that have recently passed. Along with candles to light the way, people also traditionally left fruits and gourds out on their door steps for the ghosts they believed would pass. Eventually, it became accepted that if a child did not dress as a ghost themselves, they might be whisked away to the next world with the rest of the wandering souls. So, the practice of dressing in ghostly costumes became integrated into this tradition.
The Irish history of the jack o lantern runs along the same lines. Centuries ago, as the story goes, there was an old drunk named Jack who played tricks on his friends and family. One day, according to legend, Jack went too far and played a trick on the Devil himself. He invited the Devil to have a drink. Jack being a rather stingy fellow, when it came time to settle his tab, he decided he didn’t want to pay his bill. He convinced the Devil to turn into a coin so that they could pay for their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack kept the coin and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from changing back. Jack only agreed to change the Devil back if he agreed not to bother him for an entire year and that, once Jack died, the Devil wouldn’t claim his soul. Because he was not invited into the pearly gates, and because the Devil had already made a deal regarding his decent into hell, Jack had no where to go once he died. The devil tossed Jack an ember, which the stingy old man then placed into a carved out turnip. According to the story, Jack has been roaming around with his makeshift lantern ever since. Originally, he was called “Jack of the Lantern,” but over time the title was changed simply to “Jack O’ Lantern.” The Irish and the Scotts have made a practice out of mimicking Jack’s lantern and adding scary faces to frighten him off. Once the tradition reached America, the turnips were replaced with pumpkins (which are native to the States).
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