If you celebrate Halloween or its coinciding pagan festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), you probably associate this time of year with traditional macabre symbols, like witches in black garb with pointy hats, ghosts and skeletons, black cats and spiders, bubbling cauldrons and broomsticks, and perhaps most famously, the jack-o’-lantern.
For many folks, the jack-o’-lantern is the quintessential symbol of Halloween—a decoration placed on home porches, pathways, and windowsills. Their carved and illuminated scary facades spook and delight us in equal measure, and guide and welcome costumed trick-or-treaters to the door. You might be surprised to discover that the custom of carving a pumpkin is a tradition that harkens back to times of old, with roots that go back hundreds of years.
The very first jack-o’-lanterns that we know of were crafted in
Ireland, made from hollowed-out turnips with simple yet frightening carved faces with craggy teeth and narrow eye slits. They functioned as handheld lanterns used to light the way for those walking the dark roads on Halloween night. The lanterns were also believed to scare away ill-intentioned specters, especially ones that kept the souls of deceased love ones from finding peace in the afterlife. They held a similar custom in Scotland, where jack-o’-lanterns were made from the dense stems of cabbages. Folks called them kailrunt torches, and they served the same purposes as their equivalents in Ireland.
When the Irish immigrated to America, they soon discovered the pumpkin, which was not indigenous to Ireland, and found it ideal for crafting into their Halloween lanterns. Thus, the pumpkin became the favored vegetable for fashioning jack-o’-lanterns and one of the most iconic symbols of present-day Halloween.
You may be wondering where the term jack-o’-lantern originates from. There are many versions of a story of how the jack-o’-lantern came to be, but the common thread in all of them is that they feature the same main character named—you guessed it—Jack!
The story of Jack is an old Irish folktale. Jack was a mean and stingy blacksmith who was fond of ale and playing dirty tricks on folks. When he died and the devil came to take his soul, Jack had been visiting the local pub. Jack convinced the devil to share a final round of drinks before taking him to hell. When it was time to settle the tab, Jack tricked the devil by pretending he didn’t have the money to pay. He promised the devil he’d go with him to hell if the devil turned himself into a sixpence to pay for the drinks. The devil agreed, but as soon as he transformed himself into the coin, Jack put the coin in his pouch with a cross-shaped clasp, rendering the devil powerless.
When Jack finally died, he was denied entrance into heaven and refused a place in hell, since he had tricked and angered the devil. Jack was eating a turnip when the irate devil threw a hot coal at him from the burning fires of hell. (How the devil escaped the coin purse is unclear, and how Jack managed to eat a turnip once deceased is also a mystery.) Jack picked up the coal and placed it inside the turnip, creating a lantern that he used to help light his way as he searched for his lost soul’s final resting place. Ever since, people have been using jack-o’-lanterns to protect themselves from malevolent spirits and to light their way on Halloween night.
Modern-day witches often use jack-o’-lanterns at Samhain and Halloween to serve as altar decorations. Not only are they festive and enchanting, but they also serve a magical purpose as well. They are lit to welcome the spirits of deceased loved ones who return to the world of the living on this sacred night, when the veil between the earthly and spirit planes thins. It is an ideal time for spirit communication.
When I light a jack-o’-lantern at Samhain time, I am fond of incorporating some plant magic to enhance the connection to the spirit world. There are herbs and spices with psychic power-boosting, high-vibrational properties that are also safe to burn. When you carve your pumpkin and just before you light it, try sprinkling some of these magical herbs and spices on the inside flesh. This will not only emit a delicious, autumnal aroma but also waft the magical properties of the plants out into your home and your energy field.
Try any one or a combination of these:
• cinnamon: raises high spiritual vibrations, stimulates psychic powers, offers protection
• clove: purifies and banishes negative energy
• ginger: attracts prosperity and magnifies the power of intention
• dried orange peel: attracts love and high vibrations
• allspice: encourages healing and attracts abundance
• cardamom: enhances feelings of love
• nutmeg: promotes good health and good fortune
• star anise: increases psychic powers and luck
Caution: Be aware that not all plants are safe to burn. Some can emit toxic fumes, so it’s important to do your research first.