|What would Jack of Western
Ireland think? The Annual Bykos in the Czech Republic Invasion . . .
Irish folklore and fairy tales are filled with countless tales of man using wit and cunning over a stronger, larger, or more powerful adversery, the brain seeming to be not only the great equalizer of the island nation's mythology, but the weapon that leads one to get the upper hand and succeed. From the two-foot tall, pot-of-gold hoarding leprechauns outwitting greedy men with solely money on their minds, to the beautiful seal women called the selkie, who long for a return to their oceanic homes and have to combine cunning with beauty to get their skin back and to return to the seas where their disheartened family awaits, it seems as if force and brute strength are wasted attributes to have on the green fields of Ireland, the land seeming to be a place where only the deviously cunning and manipulative can survive.
But while most Irish tales present the insidious one as hero, the hero most often leaving his nemesis for a fool, there is one man in the Irish supernatural world who pulled one over the ultimate conniver and trickster, the devil, and who has paid mightily for his folly . . .
And annually, the small, inconsequential, and largely insignificant village of Bykos, in the Czech Republic, near the town of Beroun, pays tribute to that man and the error of his ways. Of course, their tribute is simply one of financial gain, the villagers saw an opportunity to make money and they took it. Every year, beginning in early October and running through to the month's end, the village is overrun by the American expat community. They arrive on buses, they come in cars, sometimes in chains of cars seven or eight automobiles long, hitchhike, and walk. Some are families, some are young couples, some are long-term expats, others are just here for a short stay. And although none of them raise a flag, beat a drum, or treat the day trip as a nationalistic event, they are, for the most part, almost all American. So why do they invade the tiny hamlet of Bykos year after year? Because shortly after the fall of communism, the village of Bykos opened its fields to the growing of that very American fruit, the pumpkin. And with the expat explosion of the nineties, the village also opened itself up to the annual American pumpkin picking tradition, the owners even going so far as to provide the hungry for a piece of home expat populace with a wonderful barbecue, hot wine, pumpkin vodka, pumpkin pie, and, how American, apple pie.
And everyone: the expats, the owners, the villagers, are satisfied . . .
Well, except . . .
There is said to be one man still wandering the old bog roads and planes in the west of Ireland who would probably feel a bit miffed at the notion of the pumpkin being associated with his name. That man's name is Jack, and it was he who put the lantern in Jack O'Lantern, Jack O'Lantern being as synonymous with Halloween and the Halloween spirit as Bykos is to the American expat community come October. In life, the man who became Jack O'Lantern was a vagabond, a wanderer and a drunkard. One day, coming upon yet another pub in yet another Irish village, Jack asked the devil to give him some coins to buy himself a drink. The devil, seeing another opportunity to snag a soul, turned himself into a coin. But Jack was a wiley one, and instead of placing the coin up on the bar and buying his drink, Jack slipped it into his pocket atop his crucifix. The devil begged to be set free, a request that Jack was more than willing to grant as long as: 1) Jack kept his soul and 2) Jack never went without money again. The devil, weakened by the cross, granted both, Jack living the rest of his days in drunken splendor. But Jack hadn't looked ahead, and well, God doesn't let men into heaven who dealt with the devil, and the devil doesn't let the men in who made him look like the fool--and who might be likely to do the same again before his un-earthly kingdom. So, giving Jack an inextinguishable coal, the devil sent Jack back to earth, to live like the Biblical Cain: wandering forever, Jack no longer having the riches he had before, just the devil's coal.
So why does the American community invade Bykos every year looking for pumpkins?
It started with the potato famine when hundreds of thousands of Irish arrived in America. They took with them their religion, their customs, and most especially, their festivals, one of which was Halloween, a day that the Americans readily adapted as their own as it was a good reason to get together before the bleak winter season kicked in. But one aspect of the day was left behind in Ireland: Jack didn't carry his burning coal in a pumpkin. He carried it around in a vegetable known as a turnip. But when the Irish arrived in America, the land of plenty, there was one thing that the Americans didn't have plenty of: that hardened ugly vegetable that the Irish carved annually on Halloween: the turnip. But America did have plenty of pumpkins, and the Irish, perhaps not so much adaptable, so much as unwilling to let a good festival go to waste, made do--the American pumpkin even overtaking the Irish turnip as the decorative ornament of choice come October in the Republic of Ireland from where the custom derives.
So where does that leave Jack . . . unless God has forgiven him, or Satan has opened his gates to him, Jack must still be wandering the planes and bog roads of Ireland, bearing the turnip, his mark of Cain . . . or did he switch to the pumpkin? Who knows . . . Maybe Jack has left Ireland and is wandering the world far and wide, seeing how his conning the devil out of a few coins has created a culture . . . one that has even invaded the tiny, inconsequential and insignificant village of Bykos . . . after all, like the Biblical Cain, Jack O'Lantern has an eternity to wander . . .