You don’t know jack (-o’-lantern)

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You don’t know jack (-o’-lantern)

We Americans often kid each other about the other person’s ignorance by saying, “You don’t know jack!,” meaning “You don’t know anything (about a topic).”

Well, that scolding certainly applied to me during my first trip to Ireland, during an October, some ten years ago.

I was visiting friends in Dublin when I noticed at the end of the month young people preparing for Halloween, similar to how we do so in America. They were buying Halloween masks and costumes, and I learned that families were preparing treats to give out to children.

I remarked to my Irish friend that this must be another example of American culture spreading around the world. I was immediately corrected. He told me that how we Americans celebrate Halloween came from Ireland! Upon further investigation, I discovered that to be basically - but not completely - true.

“Halloween” is a modern contraction of a holiday once called “All Hallows Evening,” a time to remember the dead, especially Christian saints and martyrs. But like many Christian holidays, it actually replaced a prior pagan holiday.

In this case, the earlier holiday was a Celtic event, called in Irish as Samhain (pronounced Sah-win), the name of the Celtic god of the dead, originally worshipped - or feared - in Scotland, Wales, and of course, Ireland. When early Christian missionaries came to these Celtic regions, they supplanted pagan festivals with similar Christian holidays to stamp out paganism.

The pagan Samhain holiday took place on Nov. 1, with the Roman Catholic Church declaring that day to be All Hallows Day, with Nov. 2 designated as All Saints Day and Oct. 31 as All Hallows Eve, later truncated to Halloween.

Originally, these three holy days were collectively known as Hallowmas, but celebrated in May. However, in 835, Pope Gregory moved the days to center on Nov. 1, as a way to ease warm weather pilgrim congestion in Rome and its accompanying contagion. So, it’s debatable whether early Vatican health concerns or old Samhain’s superstitions actually had the greater hand in making Halloween an autumn holiday.

In any case, early immigrants to the United States brought along some, but not all, of the European Halloween traditions.

For example, in Ireland to this day, the holiday’s highlight for teenagers and young people is the building of bonfires, sometimes in residential street intersections - occasionally at the ire of the local oldsters, as one can be unhappily surprised as to what can mysteriously find itself thrown on to the flames.

Around these bonfires, young people wear Halloween costumes, a practice called “guising” with the disguised celebrants called as “guisers.” Songs are sung, alcohol is drunk and mischief often follows (with some of the resident geezers - not guisers - making less than charitable comments about “the younger generation.”)

In traditional Ireland, a man dressed as Lair Bhan (white mare) leads guisers from home to home to collect food. People give the costumed visitors treats in hopes of gaining good fortune from Muck Olla, the spirit of a great Druid priest.

The derivative practice of young children “trick-or-treating” is only a few hundred years old and now common in North America as well in other English-speaking countries.

Usually these less traditional Halloween celebrants are tamer than their more robust European counterparts. While young adults may live it up at occasionally wild costumed Halloween parties, usually Halloween is considered primarily a child’s holiday. American teenagers are notorious for extending their childish, if wilder, behaviors for that one night a year.

Halloween bonfires are rarely found in the U.S., but about nine years ago, I was able to organize an Irish Halloween bonfire in Seoul. (I had to get permission from both the U.S. Army and Yongsan fire departments for that event to take place!)

The jack-o’-lanterns, or a carved pumpkin lit internally by a candle, that is closely associated with this holiday, originally started out as a carved-out large turnip.

But American settlers found the native pumpkin larger and easier to carve. So today, with pumpkins spreading around the world, most people prefer to use the American variant to this old custom.

Originally, as the name implies, jack-o’-lanterns were carried by guisers to illuminate their way from house to house. In modern times, however, very large pumpkins, too large to easily carry, sit in windows or by front doors, carved in scary faces, similar to those of old, to scare away evil.

But why the name Jack? There are several stories, all based on a lazy but shrewd Irish farmer named Jack. What the stories have in common is that Jack traps the Devil one way or another, and only lets the Devil go when the Devil promises Jack never to take his soul.

So today is Halloween and I hope the reader is still at least young at heart and willing to dress up as a guiser, joining in on a Halloween party.

Thankfully, we in Seoul don’t have a tradition, as in Tokyo, where young expats dress up, often drunk, and ride the long, circular Yamanote train around the capital. (That is one practice that even the most stoic of Japanese have trouble handling.)

But here in Korea, Halloween can still be a lot of fun. But watch out! On October 31st things do go “bump in the night” - and if the bump is not from a ghost or spirit, it could come from another Halloween celebrant, slightly out of control!

*The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a sales performance-oriented market entry firm, and former chair of the Irish Association of Korea, where he organized the first St. Patrick’s Irish festivals and parades in Korean history.

by Tom Coyner

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