Why Halloween Turnips Were Once Carved Instead Of Pumpkins

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Why Halloween Turnips Were Once Carved Instead Of Pumpkins

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It’s difficult to think of Halloween without thinking of the glowing, candle-lit lanterns carved from pumpkins.

But there was a time not too long ago when the preferred material for these ghoulish creations wasn’t pumpkins but turnips.

Halloween originated as part of the rituals involved in Samhain, an ancient festival that celebrated the end of the summer and the beginning of both the new year and the coming winter for the ancient Celts, a culture that occupied much of Europe as well as Britain and Ireland.

A plaster cast of a “ghost turnip” carving from Donegal, Ireland © National Museum of Ireland. Plaster casts were made because the original turnip began to rot

In fact, the word Samhain translates from Gaelic into modern English as summer’s end. These traditions survived in Ireland for many centuries and examples of carved turnips dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are held in the archaeological collections of the National Museum of Ireland. 

The turning point between the seasons was a much-feared time for the ancient Celts because it marked the transition from plenty to privation. As such, many myths arose about the influence of fairies and witches and evil influences.

One of these was a tale about Stingy Jack, a man who supposedly tricked the devil to make himself rich. But the devil got his revenge by turning Stingy Jack into a spook and condemning him to roam the world for all eternity. He was supposedly particularly active during the night on Samhain.

Light and lanterns were used to ward off Stingy Jack and because metal lanterns were relatively expensive items, people carved faces into everyday items such as turnips and potatoes (sometimes even beetroots and radishes) and also made masks so that spirits or demons wouldn’t be able to recognize them.

They left the face outside their home or carried them as they made their way through the darkness. 

Carving faces into root vegetables was just one legacy from Samhain that reverberated down the centuries. 

Masks held by the National Museum of Ireland

People also built bonfires and carried food and drinks as bribes they could offer if they came across anything from the other realm lurking in the middle of the night.

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