Jack o' My-Baby-I-Love-You-So-Much

I just ate a pumpkin cookie. Are pumpkin cookies ever out of season? The correct answer is “no.”

And I’m feeling the need to carve a jack o’ lantern. Are jack o’ lanterns ever out of season? The correct answer is “well, it depends on what you’re carving.”

I don’t often make art out of tangible things (except for food … I will frankly admit that I make rockin’, from-scratch pasta sauces and killer salads and lovely whole-wheat bread … I love meat, but haven’t mastered it yet … however, I do make a quick, tasty chicken tender with olive oil and white wine … many of you know that I don’t drink, but oh, my goodness, how wine does amazing things when cooked with!!!) …

… and wow, that was some fun parentheses action, but to continue …

But when pumpkins aren’t in season, sometimes one must make a melon o’ lantern (except when you save a pumpkin on top of your fridge from October to your friend’s birthday in May when she turns 31 – the magical “Halloween Birthday” for which one NEEDS a pumpkin carved with a big “31”) …

… and that was another fun bit of parentheses, but onward. MUSH!!! …

I remember the first time I made a melon o’ lantern back in college. I saw that honeydew sitting on the counter, and it looked like such a nice noggin. Such a nice, little noggin.

It made the prettiest green glow after I carved a face into it and put a candle in its brains. Light green, radiant, iridescent. I stood in a dark hallway and held it in front of a mirror. It was a surreal scene of chiaroscuro. Ah, my beloved chiaroscuro.

I also once made a watermelon o’ lantern for a July luau. Very totem pole-y. Aren’t fiery faces alluring? They add such mystique to an atmosphere.

Jack o’ lanterns have been on the mind lately because I pulled out my jack o’ lantern carol to spruce up and get ready for recording. This was the fifth Halloween Carol I wrote, back in 2004. I had only written one verse, so I just added five more verses in the past few days.

I’ve reviewed my studies of the jack o’ lantern to write these lyrics – its history is fascinating! The tradition originally comes from Ireland, but they carved turnips and beets, not pumpkins. So the glows were purple, not orange – so different from what Americans are used to! They tied strings to these turnip lanterns and carried them or hung them.

There are several other names by which a jack o’ lantern is known – Lantern Men, Kitty-candlestick, Peg-a-lantern, Hob-with-a-lantern, and others. My favorite is “Spunky.”

This tradition came across the Atlantic most noticeably during the terrible potato famine of Ireland. Once on new shores, the old ways were adapted, and apparently the Irish found the pumpkin a much more suitable vessel for carving.

I was thinking about that … wishing I could time-travel back to the very moment when the idea was first had to carve a pumpkin instead of a turnip. Who was it? Or what group of people? I’ll bet it was amusing. Was it a farmer? Did he take a pumpkin back to his home that night and try it out with his family by the hearth light? Was it a little boy or little girl who first thought of it? Was it a courting couple who were taking a stroll through an outdoor market, then happened to pass by some pumpkins and joke with each other about the idea? (… because Halloween was originally associated with romance … something lost on modern tradition, unfortunately … something I’d like to have a little part in bringing back!)

“Jack o’ lantern” was also the name given to mysterious, floating lights around swamps and bogs. Also known as “will o’ the wisp” or “teine sith” (fairy light), it turns out that this is a natural phenomenon known as “ignis fatuus” (foolish fire or false fire), formed from decaying natural matter. Around cemeteries, these occurrences were called “Corpse Candles.” Some people believed they were the souls of the dead, or unbaptized infants, or even goblins released from the dead.


And it doesn’t end there.

In the early American South, these enigmatic, hovering lights were called “jack-ma-lanterns” or “jacky-my-lanterns.” It was believed dangerous to encounter one, and even more dangerous to follow one. The superstitions to protect oneself in the event of encountering a jack-ma-lantern included turning one’s coat pockets inside out or stabbing a knife into the ground (interestingly of English and Scottish origin, respectively). Some, believing these lights to have been created by witches, would say, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, drive these witches away with their evil jack-ma-lanterns.” Or they would quickly hurl themselves to the ground, shut their eyes, plug their ears, and hold their breath.

There are also tales of Jack, a persnickety, old curmudgeon, who played tricks on the Devil. Upon dying, he wasn’t accepted by St. Peter or even the Devil. But Satan did give him a lump of Hell’s coal which Jack put in a lantern, then wandered the earth, a lost soul. Or tales of Billy (Will) Dawson, whose inebriation caused his nose to become flammable, and then, in a fight, got seared with hot tongs which made his face catch on fire, fueled by facial hair. Now he is still seen going about the wetter parts of the land, trying to put out the fire.

There is so much more to this history, so many variants on these tales. And much information online and in books. With books, I recommend Lesley Bannatyne, Jack Santino, and Lisa Morton.

One other little tidbit I’d like to share is the partly related custom of “lanterns of the dead.” The use of a lantern, the use of light interests me. It’s very telling that the pranksters in Ireland used a lantern, but a spooky, “corrupt” one, to scare friends and neighbors on Halloween because lanterns were originally used to ward off evil. It’s that “turning-the-world-upside-down-for-a-night” thing that Halloween revolves around. I’ll quote straight from Lesley’s book, Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History, in the endnotes on page 96:

“Irish people believed goblins and fairies took the place of souls of the dead on Halloween and were set free to terrorize humans. Special precautions were taken on that night to prevent harm, such as stone lighthouses (‘lanterns of the dead’) lit to give protection against malicious ghosts on All Hallows Eve. After the establishment of the Church in Celtic lands, prayer was added as protection against the night. Men in Great Britain assembled in a field at midnight on Halloween and held high a torch of burning straw while they prayed for the souls of their departed friends. On some old farms in northern England these fields are called ‘purgatory fields.’”

Such a rich melting pot of history this holiday is, no?

So, with my jack o’ lantern carol, I was recently on a bike ride, thinking of how I might arrange it. To conceive ideas, I try to just relax my brain and feel out the spirit of a tune. Ask it. Wait for it to tell me. I never bicycle or go running with an iPod – must keep the mind clear! So, as I was pumping pedals up a mountain, the feeling of acoustic guitar came to me. It felt good, but then I fought it a little bit. I thought, No! Let’s make it big! Let’s rock it with massive pipe organ and heavy strings or something!

But no, this little jack o’ lantern spirit steadily whispered acoustic guitar and soft organ to me. It wants to focus on the intimacy of carving its little soul. Enjoying the flickering candle, not the monstrous bonfire. Halloween gives a time and place for both. I’ve already recorded a heavy bonfire song (“Souling Song – Samhain Version”), so now it’s time for a mysterious, mellow, flickering candlelight song.

My new recordings will still be a while yet, but I’m deep in arranging mode, preparing them for you! I can’t wait to share this one with you. Perfect music for turning out the lights, lighting a candle inside a jack o’ lantern, and letting its lovely spirit seep deeply into your bones.