Before We Carved Pumpkins for Halloween, People Carved Turnips

A turnip carved for the Isle of Man's 2017 Hop-tu-Naa festival.
A turnip carved for the Isle of Man's 2017 Hop-tu-Naa festival. / Culture Vannin, Flickr // Public Domain

When it comes to (somewhat) edible Halloween decorations, the pumpkin is the indisputable star of the show, with every other squash and gourd in a supporting role. But back when Halloween was barely a twinkle in the eye of its parent holiday—the ancient Celtic festival Samhain—a different vegetable took center stage: the turnip.

During Samhain, held from sunset on October 31 through November 1, it was believed that spirits were able to return to the mortal realm. And since some of those spirits were less than benevolent, people tried to keep them at bay by etching scary expressions into freshly harvested turnips and other root vegetables, like potatoes and beets.

As Smithsonian reports, repelling potentially nefarious specters wasn’t the only reason you might be inclined to gut a spud and give it a face. “Metal lanterns were quite expensive, so people would hollow out root vegetables,” Nathan Mannion, senior curator at Dublin’s EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, told National Geographic. “Over time people started to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without extinguishing the ember.”

Would a ghost be scared of this?
Would a ghost be scared of this? / Culture Vannin, Flickr // Public Domain

Turnips in particular make an appearance in the Irish legend of “Stingy Jack,” in which a man named Jack cons the devil a couple times and gets punished by being outlawed from both heaven and hell. The devil presents him with one glowing coal, which Jack places in a hollow turnip and heads off to wander Earth for eternity. Anyone who witnessed an inexplicable source of light over Ireland’s marshy regions might chalk it up to Jack and his lantern—or “Jack of the Lantern,” or “Jack-o’-Lantern.” (Those light sources do, in fact, have an explanation: They’re generally thought to be caused by the combustion of gas released during the decomposition of organic material.)

When Irish immigrants popularized the tale—along with the practice of carving turnips—in the U.S. during the 19th century, people gradually replaced turnips with pumpkins, which were both abundant and conducive to carving. But these days, turnip lanterns still outperform their pumpkin counterparts in at least one place: the Isle of Man. Every October 31, instead of Halloween, many citizens celebrate Hop-tu-Naa, a similar holiday that marks the transition from harvest season to winter. Kids customarily tote their turnip lanterns around town while collecting candy or coins from their neighbors (though not necessarily shouting “Trick or treat!” at every stop).

One Isle of Man child's turnip masterpiece, carved in 2020.
One Isle of Man child's turnip masterpiece, carved in 2020. / Culture Vannin, Flickr // Public Domain

[h/t Smithsonian]