One of my folklorist colleagues in Newfoundland is Lisa Wilson, who works with me at the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador. Over the past year, Lisa has been working on a couple of projects in the Bay Roberts region, including work commemorating the 100th anniversary of Cable Avenue, and more recently, on folk belief and legends from the area.
Recently, Wilson visited with Mr. Gerald French, who was born and raised on a property just behind Cable Avenue, now a registered heritage district.
“His father was a caretaker for the Western Union Company, so Gerald had many memories to share about what life in and around the cable office was like,” says Wilson. “He is also a great storyteller and recalled a few ghostly tales he was told as a child. One of which took place on the dark streets of Bay Roberts — Barnes Road, to be exact — before the days of the street lamp.”
“A man was out walking and it was very dark,” she says, “so he cursed out loud, wishing for a jack o’lantern to appear and light his path. All of a sudden, a large light appeared in front of him. It gave him such a fright, that he ran the rest of the way home.”
The phenomenon of the jacky lantern is something I have written about before. In Newfoundland and Labrador, they go by a variety of names, with jacky lantern being the most common, though I have also come across Jack the Lantern, corpse light, corpse candle, or will-o'-the-wisps. My late father-in-law, George Jones, saw one as a boy in Bay Roberts, and people all over the province have reported strange little balls of light appearing over marshes, roadways, or bodies of water.
One of the things I love about stories is how they travel. Like little will-o'-the-wisps themselves, stories travel over land and water, and pop up in unexpected places.
For the past few weeks, I have been travelling in Belgium and the Netherlands, telling stories and meeting with heritage workers, tour guides and storytellers. I always try to keep my ears open, and ask questions about local legends. So I was not completely surprised when I started to hear stories about something supernatural which is very similar to our jacky lantern.
In Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, this ghostly ball of light is called a dwaallicht. Much like Newfoundland’s jacky lanterns, dwaallichten take the form of small globes of light, which often lead people into the woods.
Veva Gerard, a Flemish storyteller, told me a story about a dwaallicht that she had heard which came originally from France. In the story, a priest had died, but as punishment for works left undone on Earth, he was condemned to return and give mass once a year for 300 years. His spirit appears carrying a candle each year, even though his original church has long since vanished. Locals in the region of the story claim that they can see the light of that candle bobbing and moving in the vicinity of where that church once stood, every year on the same day.
In the Netherlands,tradition says that their versions of jacky lanterns are the souls of unbaptized children, and that if you meet one, it will attempt to lead you to water so that you can baptize it.
Late one night a man was walking across a field in Holland, when three will-o'-the-wisps came running toward him. The man had heard the old stories, and knew exactly what to do.
"I baptize you all in the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost,” said the man.
The three will-o'-the-wisps vanished, but things did not go so well for the man. He was instantly surrounded by a thousand will-o'-the-wisps, all wanting to be baptized. He baptized without stop, but more and more appeared, and this did not stop until the sun came up. The man had to spend the entire night in the field.
So if you meet a jacky lantern on the path one night, you can decide which course of action to take. You can try to baptize them like the Dutch, or you can take a lesson from the man in Gerald French’s story, and run off in the opposite direction, as fast as you possibly can.
Storyteller and author Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.