Our Town: Jack O’Lanterns the the legend of Stingy Jack

"sorry to day my Jack O'Lantern looks like the Edvard Munch painting "The Scream"

The Rise of the Jack O’Lanterns has arrived at Old Westbury Gardens and it’s such a success that you actually have to reserve a time in order to attend.

So far I have had no luck and thus have been compelled to carve my own pumpkin. Halloween always seems to be a favorite time of year for kids. They enjoy the combination of free candy and wandering around in the dark.

I recall going from house to house as a child and filling large grocery bags with Snickers, Almond Joys, Butterfingers, Baby Ruth’s and Milky Ways which gave me a good sugar high for at least a week.
Halloween is now fully secularized but it’s interesting to explore the roots of this ancient holiday which always falls on Oct. 31. Over the last 1,000 years or so Halloween has been connected to the Christian celebration of All Hallows Eve in order to celebrate the saints, martyrs and all the faithful departed.

Prior to that Halloween was a pagan harvest ritual established to commemorate the end of the harvest season and the freedom from work in the fields. There was always much eating, merriment, music and romance to be had on this night.
The Jack O’Lantern is a popular aspect of Halloween where a pumpkin has its flesh scooped out, a scary face is carved on it and a candle is placed within. This tradition stems from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack who was said to be a drunk, a manipulator and a liar who would wander the Irish countryside in search of people to take advantage of.

One day Satan heard of Stingy Jack and was so envious of his nature that he hunted him down. Satan pretended to be asleep on a cobblestone path and when Stingy Jack came up to him Satan opened his eyes and Jack knew that Satan had come to take him to Hades. He proceeded to plead for one more drink before they went down to hell.

Satan complied and after Jack had his drink he had the audacity to ask Satan to pay the bartender for him. Satan was now even more impressed with Jack’s brazen ways and complied by turning himself into a gold coin that Jack was to give to the bartender.

Clever Jack instead put the gold coin in his pocket next to a crucifix where he was trapped for ten years. The story goes on from there with Stingy Jack finding it impossible to untangle himself for Satan’s web. You will notice that this legend is remarkably like Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus who also bargains with the devil.

Now we bargain with kids dressed as devils who come to our door on Halloween and shout “trick or treat!”
The most ancient roots of Halloween and Jack O’Lanterns are found in the way we connect with our seasons as we orbit the sun. Every adult knows deep down that by Halloween the winter is soon to come as the days grow shorter and the nights get darker. The elderly fly off to their winter homes in Florida and the rest of us feverishly plan our winter vacations to places like Southern California, Bermuda or Cancun.
The famous image of the Jack O’Lantern as a ‘horn of fire’ is conjured up in the last scene in “No Country for Old Men” which won all those Oscars a few years ago. In the final scene Tommy Lee Jones character has just retired from the police force after fighting a losing battle against the Javier Bardem character.

He sits at the kitchen table and describes a dream he had the night before in which he is “back in the olden times riding horseback into the mountains. It’s cold and dark and snow is on the ground.

My father passes me on horseback with his head down, silent, covered in a blanket. Under the blanket I could see a fire in a horn-like the way people used to carry fire. I could see the horn from the light inside it, like the color of the moon. He rode on by and never said a word, just went on by. And I knew he was going on ahead, fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold. And I knew whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.”

That may be the single greatest dream ever put into a film.
And isn’t that exactly what all those Jack O’Lanterns are? They are the fire in the horn Tommy Lee Jones described and also like the ‘fire in the horn’ cavemen used to carry 20,000 years ago. The ‘fire in the horn’ was the difference between life and death for their clan as the winter came.
Now during Halloween, we make these ‘horns of fire’ for our children to ward off the devil of winter. We all need these Jack O’Lanterns to remind us that even though winter is coming we can look inside the carved out pumpkin and see the bright light within with knowledge that spring will come back to us with the flowers, the grass and the sun.
Humans are a smart species. We have instinctively built into our culture these holidays which help us endure the coming of winter. So bring on the ghosts and goblins and witches for we are armed with the horn of fire that is a harbinger that hope still exists and our precious sun will return once more.


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