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Barbara Walking in the Valley
A weekly column for those who live and walk in Silicon Valley

by Barbara Dahlgren

Hit the Road, Jack!
Column for the week of October 26 - November 1, 2003

On October 31 children of all ages will dress in costume, go door-to-door begging for candy, and decorate their yards with witches and goblins. Aliens should get a big chuckle out of these customs. There has been much debate on the pros and cons of celebrating Halloween and where it originated. Did it come from the Celtic fire festival called Samhain celebrating their new year? Did Christians move All Saints' Day from May to November 1 to correspond with this festival thus giving us the name All Hallow e'en ("the evening of all the holy ones")? Is it really a religious holiday in disguise or can it be linked back to Satanic rites of human and animal sacrifices? I prefer to focus on the meatier issues such as just where did the custom of carving the Jack O’ Lantern come from?

Several legends exist about the origin of the Jack O’ Lantern. Most agree it stems from variations of an old Irish myth. It seems there was a no good, Irish drunkard called “Stingy Jack” who met the Devil in a pub one Halloween night. The Devil was ready to take Jack below but Jack pleaded for one last drink. Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for the ale so he tricked the Devil into turning into a sixpence to buy it. Once the Devil did this Jack decided to pocket the coin instead. He kept it in his purse next to a silver cross. Being near the cross prevented the Devil from changing back to his original form. Jack freed the Devil once he promised not to bother him for a year.

After a year when the Devil came to claim Jack again, Jack talked the Devil into getting him an apple from a tree as one last request. The Devil said, “Okay,” and climbed the apple tree. While the Devil was up there Jack carved a cross on the tree trunk. He wouldn’t let the Devil down until he promised not to claim his soul when he died. The Devil agreed.

Years passed and Stingy Jack died. When he arrived at the Pearly Gates, Saint Peter said, “You’re too mean and can’t come into heaven.” Satan wouldn’t let him in hell either but just before he said, “Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more,” he reached into hell and gave him a burning coal. Jack carried the ember around in a hollowed out turnip (yes, I said turnip) and used it to light his way. He’s been roaming the earth searching for a home ever since. The Irish called him Jack of the Lantern.

Jack O’ Lanterns were usually carved from turnips, potatoes, rutabagas, gourds, or beets and lit with a candle or burning lump of coal. They were put in windows or near doors to frighten away bad spirits (including that rascal Jack) and to welcome the souls of deceased loved ones. When the Irish Potato Famine brought over 500,000 immigrants to America in the 1800s they brought their Halloween traditions but found turnips to be scarce. Pumpkins, however, were plentiful, bigger, and easier to carve. So it was goodbye turnips and hello pumpkin Jack O’ Lanterns. And so it is today.

As in most legends there is an element of truth in the story. I doubt if Stingy Jack ever lived. The Devil is not that easily tricked. Jack is not roaming the earth with a turnip looking for a home. However, the Devil is rendered helpless by the cross. It’s not so much the symbol he hates but what it represents: the depth of God’s love, Christ being crucified, Jesus dying for our sins, a bridge between life and death, our desperate need for a Savior, victory over sin, a resurrection, faith, hope, and glory. (Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:15-17, Philippians 2:7-9, Colossians 1:19-21, 1 Corinthians 1:16-18, 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Hebrew 12:2)

Stingy Jack would have fared better if he had dealt with God rather than the Devil. And so would we all. Unfortunately most of us, like Jack, are roaming the earth looking for a home. We think we can find one by playing tricks on the Devil when all we have to do is believe in what the cross represents.

Be sure to visit this page every week to read the next edition of Walking in the Valley. You can write to the author at



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