April 22, 2024

Turnip Carving! A Jack-O’-Lantern History

Everyone knows about the Halloween classic, pumpkins, used for treats and decoration. But did you know this squash wasn’t always the first pick for the holiday? Pumpkins have had a long history with Halloween, but by a vegetable, you wouldn’t have guessed— turnips!

Around the 7th century in the British Isles, Ireland celebrated the end of the summer and the start of a new year on November 1st. This holiday was known as Samhain; it was believed that the souls of those who had passed that year could pass through to the overworld and visit the living. Similar to the Day of the Dead (mainly celebrated in Mexico), Samhain was a time to honor the dead.

While it was a day of celebration, many held fears of the evil spirits that may roam the earth, so they dressed in furs and feathers to confuse the spirits into leaving them alone. Not only did they disguise themselves with costumes, but the Irish carved large turnips with grotesque faces to frighten the spirits.

A well-known tale of an evil spirit would be the legend of Stingy Jack. According to the story, Stingy Jack was a man of low regard in a small village in Ireland. The devil had heard tales of his devious deeds and decided he wanted Jack’s soul. But Jack was clever; he proposed they get a drink at a pub before they went to the underworld. Jack did not want to pay the tab, convincing the devil to turn it into a coin so they could pay their dues and leave. The devil agreed, unknowingly trapping himself in Jack’s pocket with the use of a silver cross.

The devil begged and pleaded to be released, but Stingy Jack only agreed to free him with the promise that the devil would not bother him for another year. The following year, the devil came back to collect Jack’s soul. Jack asked him for one last favor: to climb an apple tree and pick the fruit. After climbing the tree, the devil was trapped! Stingy Jack had carved a crucifix onto the bark, tricking the devil yet again. Jack only released the devil with the promise that he would not come back to collect Jack’s soul again. Agreeing upon this, the devil refused to take Jack after his last breath.

God would not allow such a figure into heaven either, so they allowed Stingy Jack to roam the earth with only a carved-out turnip with an amber ablaze with hellfire. This is where the name “Jack O’ Lantern” comes from. The Irish carved faces into turnips to scare Jack away. Their immigration to North America limited their access to turnips, so they used native fruit pumpkins instead!