Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Welcome to ‘Tales from the Other Side’ where we look at folklore, mythology and magic.
One of the most recognised symbols of Hallowe’en is the iconic carved pumpkin. In recent years, pumpkin picking has become a popular autumn activity and designs have become more outlandish and elaborate. This ritual became popular in America in the 19th century following the arrival of Irish and Scottish immigrants who brought their traditions with them. Traditionally turnips were used but pumpkins became popular as they are larger and softer making them much easier to carve. But what did these lanterns represent and why were they used?
The blackguard blacksmith
Many years ago in rural Ireland, there was a blacksmith known who loved nothing more than a good drink. As well as drinking, he also liked scheming, cheating and tricking people, and he earned himself the name Stingy Jack. He showed no kindness to anyone and people would often comment that Jack was as cold as the Devil himself. Word of his reputation soon reached the ears of the Devil who was most displeased to hear that people were comparing Jack to him so he decided to pay Jack a visit…
One dark Hallowe’en night, Stingy Jack was walking back from the pub. It is well known that Hallowe’en is a terrible night to walk alone because it is a night when creatures from the other side can roam the land. Jack had forgotten this after a few pints and as he was walking he saw a tall, dark figure on the path ahead of him. He noticed the figure had hooves like a goat and horns on his head and he realised that the Devil had finally caught up with him to collect his soul. “Fair enough!” said Jack “I knew I’d see you eventually. I haven’t lived the best life so I’ll come along with you quietly but first could we stop at the pub so I can have my last drink?”. The Devil thought about this and he agreed they could call in for a pint. When they walked into the pub none of the other patrons seemed to notice that Stingy Jack had walked in with the Prince of Darkness. When Jack commented on this the Devil told him “ah but you see, I am powerful and one of my skills is to take the form of anything I choose and I appear different to these folk. All these can see is a kindly old man with a mischievous glint in his eye” Jack agreed that this was a very impressive skill and he went to the bar to fetch their drinks whilst thinking to himself.
As is often the case, one beer turned into another and another turned into a few more. As the pub was preparing to close Stingy Jack started searching his pockets. “Ahhh no! I’m an awful eejit! I’ve only gone and forgotten my money” Jack exclaimed. “Well here now, I have an idea. Why don’t you turn yourself into a silver coin and I’ll use you to pay for the drinks. Then once I have gone you can turn back and we can head off to hell”. Enchanted by the deception and impressed that even now Jack was still unrepentant, the Devil laughed thinking this would be a fine idea and he promptly turned himself into silver coin. As soon as he changed form, Jack snatched the coin up, put it in his pocket and sneaked out of the pub without paying for a single drink.
A deal with the Devil
The Devil soon realised something was wrong when he was unable to change back to his normal form. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t transform himself. In a clever move, Stingy Jack had put him in his pocket with his rosary beads with a little silver cross and this rendered the Devil powerless. The Devil became more and more infuriated and began shouting out demanding that Jack set him free but Jack knew that he had Old Scratch at his mercy and said “well I’ve had a think and I’m not sure I’m quite ready to head off for hell right now”. “Release me!” the Devil proclaimed “and I will let you have another year of life… Very well, five years and that is my final offer” but in truth, both fellows knew he was in no position to negotiate. “I don’t much feel like visiting hell at all so here is my price. I want your word that my soul will never pass through the gates of hell and then I will set you free”. The Devil, although furious, had no choice but to agree and when Stingy Jack flipped the coin from his pocket, he quickly transformed and returned to his dark kingdom.
Jack fancied himself a very clever man indeed to have tricked Lucifer and he continued living a hedonistic life with no thought or care for anyone. Eventually his drinking and trickery caught up with him and Jack died. He found himself at the Gates of Heaven where a host of angels were waiting for him. “We have heard all about you, Stingy Jack! There is no place for you here, be of with you!” and with that Jack found himself cast away from the light and he began the descent down to the Underworld. As he came closer to the Gates of Hell, Jack could see a darkness surrounding him that he didn’t seem to be able to escape and when he arrived at the Gates, they were closed and nobody was there waiting for him. Tentatively, Jack knocked and called out to see if anyone was there and the Devil soon appeared. “Ah Jack! I have been expecting to see you. I’m sure you remember our little deal and being the gentleman that I am, I always keep my word so you see, I can’t let you in” he said. “But… where will I go?” asked Jack “there is nowhere for you Jack - you shall wander for all eternity between worlds, in the dark and cold” the Devil replied, delighted to finally have his revenge on the mortal who tricked him. “It’s so dark I can barely see anything” said Jack “could you give me a light to help me find my way as I wander?” he asked. The Devil thought about this and agreed, he had a begrudging admiration for the man and so he threw one of the coals from the flames of hell to him and disappeared. Jack caught the coal but it was far too hot for him to carry and he started looking around for a way to carry the burning coal. He found a turnip and carved it out, placing the coal inside Stingy Jack began his endless wandering with only his lantern as company.
When people encountered strange lights, they often attributed it to Jack of the Lantern, over time this name evolved into Jack o’lantern. On 31st October, the Celtic celebration of Samhain, the veil between the mortal world and the other world is much thinner and spirits and beings can roam the Earth. The Celts would carve turnips with terrible faces to display in their windows with a candle inside in the hope this would keep ghosts and ghouls and Stingy Jack, away from their homes.
Tales from the other side also delves into the origins of the Hallowe'en festival and the Celtic celebrations of Samhain here
We compiled a list of spooky Hallowe'en thrillers available on youtube in one of our articles here
Some fantastic pumpkin carving advice available here
The largest Hallowe'en festival on the island of Ireland takes place in Derry/Londonderry. The official website has a detailed programme and examples of the events. Find it all here.
This Irish Times article explores the tradition of turnip carving