A Tale for Snap Apple
“Gather round the fire,” the old grandmother said. As she was the best storyteller all around, all of the children, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and even grandmothers and grandfathers gathered.
“On Snap Apple Night,” the old grandmother said, “it’s fitting to tell the story of how the jack o’lantern came to be." As she said this, a candle in the pumpkin on the porch of the double-pen house flickered. “In our homelands of Ireland and Scotland,” she began:
“There lived our old friend, Jack, or perhaps he was the grandfather of the Jack we usually tell about, but he was also called Jack. Now, this Jack loved to play tricks on folks and besides this he didn’t take up with any of these temperance speakers. Why, he could drink a cherry bounce, or something stronger, faster than a pig can squeal. Now, one night, as it happens Snap Apple Night, also called All Hallows Eve, when anybody with any sense knows that the wool between the worlds is thin, and spirits from the little people that cause little harm to Old Scratch, the Devil himself, roam the earth, Jack was out drinking at the local tavern.
And who should join Old Jack but Old Scratch, the Devil himself. “Time to join me, Jack,” said Old Scratch.
“How about another cherry bounce before we go?” Jack asked, knowing that the Devil was always thirsty. The Devil agreed, but when it came time to pay, neither Jack nor the Devil had any money. “Hey,” said Jack, “you can change yourself into a coin and show up in my pocket, and I can use you to pay for the drink, then you can shift back into your old handsome self.”
Quick as a flash, Jack felt a coin in his pocket, but what the Devil didn’t know was that Jack also carried a silver cross in that pocket. Now, the Devil was trapped. Jack said, “Okay, Old Scratch, if you promise to let me stay on earth another year, I’ll let you out.”
After the Devil had slunk off into the night, Jack made a prayer promising he’d quit drinkin’ and fiddlin’ and playing tricks on folks. But a year is a long time, and pretty soon, Jack was back to his old ways.
A year later, on the next Snap Apple Night, Jack was leaving that tavern, again full of cherry bounce, when suddenly right next to him Old Scratch was walking too. “Time to go, Jack,” Old Scratch said, “and I am not turning into any coin or getting in any pocket.”
“Fair enough,” said Jack, but he noticed they had walked under a big apple tree. “But surely,” said Jack, knowing that the Devil was always hungry, “we could each have a juicy apple before we go. You stand on my shoulders and pick us each an apple.”
So, Old Scratch stood on Jack’s shoulders to pick the apples, but before he could pick even one apple, Jack pulled his knife out of his pocket and cut crosses on the tree trunk. Now, that trapped the Devil and only the man who carved the crosses could release him. Old Scratch pleaded and begged to get down from the tree. Finally, Jack said, “If you don’t take me for another ten years, I’ll let you down.”
As Old Scratch slunk off into the night mumbling that Jack was just as mean as a rattlesnake and he didn’t want that soul in his place, Jack again promised in a prayer to live right. But ten years is a long time, and pretty soon, Jack was up to his old ways again.
But all that drinkin’ and fiddlin’ and tricking folks finally wore down Old Jack’s body and before that ten years was even up, the cedar tree Jack had planted in his yard grew big enough to shadow a grave and Old Jack died. Jack just had time to grab one of the big turnips he had stored for winter when he was whisked up to the gates of Heaven. Saint Peter met Jack at the gates and said, “Sorry, Jack, but all your promises was as crooked as a dog’s hind leg and all your doings was twice as dirty. I can’t let you into Heaven.”
Well, Jack thought, I guess I’ll have to go lie with Old Scratch down below. Still toting his turnip, Jack soon arrived at the gates of Hell. The Devil himself met Jack at the gates and said, “Go away, Jack. I’ve had enough of your tricks and I don’t want your soul.”
Now, Jack was in a fix. He had nowhere to go but back to earth but he could no longer live there as a man. He could only wander the dark nights, perhaps seen on nights such as Snap Apple with only his turnip for company. He had even begun to carve a face on the turnip so he could talk to it. “For old time’s sake,” Jack begged the Devil, “give me a chunk of coal from your fiery furnace to help me light my way.” To get Jack away from his gate, Old Scratch threw him a coal and it landed right in that turnip. Now, to this day, in that old country, folks put a light in a turnip on All Hallows Eve to signal to Old Jack to stay away from their houses. But somehow, Jack followed some of us folks all the way to Kentucky and Tennessee and he was able to change that old turnip for a big pumpkin just ripe on the vine. He carved another face and to this day, on certain nights you can see those strange lights dancing near the waters and fields. Some folks call them will o’wisps, but now you all know that is Jack dancing with his pumpkin lantern. And to this day on Snap Apple Night, we all carve our own jack o’lanterns to keep Jack away from our houses, and to remember the story.” The candle in the jack o’ lantern on the porch of double-pen house flickered again, and then everyone hurried inside to bob for apples and eat apple pie.
This story is found in the book, The Homeplace History and Receipt Book: History, Folklore, and Recipes from Life on an Upper Southern Farm a Decade before the Civil War by Geraldine Ann Marshall (The Friends of Land Between the Lakes Publishing, 2012.) Available from Amazon.com and other distributors. Profits help fund education at The Homeplace.
Author’s Note: The Homeplace is a living history museum, a working 1850s frontier farm near Dover, Tennessee. In the 1850s, this area was also claimed by of Kentucky. Snap Apple Night, better known to the modern reader as Halloween evening, would have been a good reason for a play party at The Homeplace. The families who lived at The Homeplace were largely descended from Scottish and Irish stock. Many of our Snap Apple (Halloween) customs come from these Celtic countries. This evening creates one of the thin places in Celtic lore where those spirits in the afterlife and other supernatural creatures are believed to visit the living, making this the perfect time for games that tell the future and scary stories around a fire! The fire kept the ghosts, goblins, and witches away.
Games for Snap Apple Night
One game of Snap Apple was set up with an apple suspended on a long string. The players tried to bite an apple ˗ no hands allowed. Another version of the game was to fix an apple on one side of a stick and a lighted candle on the opposite side. The stick was then horizontally suspended while swung around. The object was to grab the apple between your teeth ˗ not the candle!
Bobbing for Apples
Fill a large tub with water. Add however many apples you wish. The apples will then bob up to the water’s surface. The players can only use their teeth to catch an apple. The first one to actually catch an apple wins. In ancient Celtic times, the first person, not already married of course, to catch an apple would be the next to marry.