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Turnip-o’-lantern: Turnips were the original Halloween decorations

Boban Docevski

That part of the year is coming when pumpkins are carved into all sorts of funny and scary shapes. Although Jack-o’-lanterns are usually made of pumpkins today, this wasn’t always the case.

Original Halloween lanterns came from Ireland and were made out of turnips.

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Swedish turnip (Rutabaga) / Photo credit

Vegetable and fruit carving is an old tradition and exists across the world. Gourds were the first plant that was domesticated for its carving potential some 10,000 years ago, and among other things, they were also carved to serve as lanterns. The Maori were the first people to carve gourds into lanterns 700 years ago.

We all know the story about Jack-o’-lantern (Stingy Jack) and how he made a deal with the devil not to take his soul. According to one version of the story, when Jack died he was too sinful to go to heaven, and the devil had already promised not to take his soul.

He had nowhere to go. When he complained to the devil that without light, he couldn’t see where to go, the Devil gave him an ember from the flames of Hades to guide him in the darkness of the afterlife.

Jack took a turnip, his favorite food, carved it into a lantern and put the ember inside it. With his lantern ready, he began to wander in search of a resting place endlessly.

According to folklore researchers, the original story and the tradition of making Jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween come from Ireland.

There is an old Irish legend about a man called Sean na Gealai. Sean is the Irish equivalent of the name John, and another version of John is Jack. “Gealach” is the Gaelic word for moon and “gealai” is the word used for half moon or waning moon.

This term is also used for lanterns. The first stories about a trickster that was banned even from hell appeared some 300 years ago. His full name, Sean na Gealai, means “John of the little moon” or, with some modifications, “Jack of the Lantern.”

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A Cornish Jack-o’-Lantern made from a turnip / Photo credit

Halloween is also linked with the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. According to Irish mythology, this is the time when the doors to the Otherworld open and supernatural beings and the souls of the dead enter our world.

Besides the ritual bonfires (meant to ward off evil spirits) that are lit on this day, mumming and guising (Trick-or-treating) were also rituals performed during Samhain.

The traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns, lit with coal or a candle, and often carved with grotesque faces. In Ireland, only large Swedish Turnips, also called Rutabaga, were used for carving.

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An Irish Seán Na Gealaí turnip lantern (early 20th century) / Photo credit

Turnip lanterns usually represented supernatural beings and, were used to chase evil spirits. Guisers used them to scare people, while in some cases they were set on windowsills to guard homes against evil.

According to some folklorists, jack-o’-lanterns were used to represent Christian souls in purgatory. In Christianity, Halloween is All Saints’ Day (1 November), followed by All Souls’ Day (2 November).

Another recorded use of turnips as lanterns comes from Worcestershire, England, at the end of the 18th century. Folklorist Jabez Allies wrote:

In my juvenile days I remember to have seen peasant boys make, what they called a “Hoberdy’s Lantern,” by hollowing out a turnip, and cutting eyes, nose, and mouth therein, in the true moon-like style; and having lighted it up by inserting the stump of a candle, they used to place it upon a hedge to frighten unwary travellers in the night.

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Irish immigrants brought the jack-o’-lantern custom to North America. Here, turnips were slowly replaced by pumpkins to make the iconic Halloween decorations, and eventually became the plant of choice.

Here’s another spooky story from us: Frankenstein Castle was the home of alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel-the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein

The first account of pumpkins used as Halloween decorations comes from 1834. The November 1st 1866 edition of the Daily News (Kingston, Ontario) mentions carved pumpkin lanterns in connection with the celebration of Halloween:

The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe’en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.