Before Pumpkins People Carved Turnips on Halloween

Nov 18, 2021 0 comments

The yearly Halloween tradition of carving pumpkins into Jack-o-lanterns was originally an Irish ritual, but instead of pumpkins, the folks across the pond took their knives to root vegetables such as the turnip. The friendly grin we see on carved pumpkins today looked far more sinister on the long face of the turnip. The Museum of Country Life in Castlebar, Co Mayo, has one ghoulish example on display. “People do recoil when they see it in the flesh,” Tony Candon, the manager keeper of the museum, tells Irish Times. “There’s a fascination with it – it sends a shiver down the spine. It’s quite small but it’s very powerful.”

A plaster cast of a carved turnip from Donegal, Ireland. Photo: National Museum of Ireland

The custom of carving vegetables at the time of Halloween began in Ireland among the Samhain. In these Gaelic-speaking regions, Halloween was seen as a time when supernatural beings and the souls of the dead, walked the earth. The lanterns were carved and placed on windowsill to keep harmful spirits out of one's home. A particularly ominous entity was Stingy Jack.

According to folklore, several centuries ago in Ireland, there lived a drunkard called “Stingy Jack”, who was known throughout the land as a shrewd manipulator. One night, Satan overheard the tale of Jack's evil deeds and decided to test him in order to find out for himself whether or not Jack lived up to his vile reputation. So the Satan approached Stingy Jack and told him that had come to collect his soul. Jack requested that he be allowed to have one last drink. They both went to a local pub and Jack drank to his heart’s content. Afterwards, Jack asked Satan to pay the tab for the ale. When Satan replied that he didn’t carry money, Jack convinced him to turn himself into a silver coin with which to pay the bartender and change back when he's not looking. As soon as Satan turned into a coin, Jack stuck the coin into his pocket, which also contained a crucifix. The crucifix's presence kept the devil from escaping his form. Jack agreed to release Satan under the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for ten years.

Ten years later, Jack met with the devil again, and again Satan announced he had come to take him to hell. Jack asked if he could have one apple, and Satan once again foolishly agreed to his request. As Satan climbed a nearby apple tree to fetch a fruit, Jack carved a cross on the tree’s trunk. Satan, realizing he had been entrapped again, made another deal with Jack, this time promising never to take his soul to hell.

When Jack eventually died, he was refused entry into heaven on account of his deceitful life and the devil wouldn’t have him for he had given Jack his word. Jack was instead left to roam the earth forever, with a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. He became known as “Jack of the Lantern”, or jack o'lantern.

When Irish migrants came to North America, they brought along their tradition of root vegetable carving. Instead of turnips, however, they began carving pumpkins because of their availability. Pumpkins were also much larger making them easier to carve than turnips. Before long, carved pumpkins became an emblem of Halloween.


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}