The turnip lantern was probably the Celtic predecessor of the American Halloween pumpkin. In Ireland and Scotland, on Halloween children went souling with turnip lanterns or kail-runt torches (a candle stuck in the hollowed-out stem of a cabbage). In Somerset, on Punky Night (October 25) children paraded with lanterns made of hollowed-out mangel-wurzels (a type of beet), with the shells carved into faces and other designs.
Supposedly these vegetable lanterns were once used to guide people home from a fair in a neighboring village but it seems also possible that, like candles in windows, they were used to welcome the souls of the dead, returning at this time of the year. Folklorist Ronald Hutton believes the lit lanterns represent the flickering lights seen in marshes which are believed to be the souls of unbaptized children. In eastern England, Jack O’Lantern is another name for the marsh flames, which are called “spunkies” or “punkies” in Somerset.
Marian McNeill provides instructions on how to make a turnip lantern in The Silver Bough:
- Choose a large, round turnip. (The turnip chosen for carving was probably the rutabaga or swede, not the smaller round turnip that is usually sold under that name in the United States.)
- Cut a thick slice–about a quarter of the whole–off the top.
- Scoop out the inside, preferably with a spoon, taking care not to break the skin but making the shell as thin as possible. Leave a stump at the bottom and hollow it out to serve as a socket for the candle.
- With a fine, sharp knife, etch a design on the turnip. Be careful not to cut through the skin. Suggested: a man-in-the-moon face, a skull and cross-bones, etc.
- Get a candle and set it firmly in the socket.
- Make two holes near the top, one on each side of the face.
- Thread a piece of string or wire through the holes to act as a handle. It should be long enough to prevent any risk of burning one’s hand. A forked stick can also be used with the lantern suspended from the two branches of the V.
According to McNeill, the lit lantern emits a soft, luminous glow and the device you have carved stands out clearly. It is definitely more eerie, and certainly more unique, than the traditional jack o’lantern and would be a new challenge for those of you who have mastered the art of pumpkin carving.
Margaret Oomen describes how she created an artistic version of a turnip lantern at her blog, Resurrection Fern. Her lantern is much more like those carried on Punky Night in Somerset as described by Christina Hole: “Instead of the simple holes for eyes and nose of the usual Hallowtide ‘face,’ quite intricate flower-, ship-, or animal-patterns are cut on the outer skin of the mangold.” Punky Night is still celebrated in Hinton St. George on the last Thursday in October. After the procession, the carved vegetables are displayed and judged. See this blog entry for an account of the festivities in 2008.
Here’s a funny link with good photos of turnip lanterns from someone who complains about the terrible stench of a burning turnip. Another reason to choose a pumpkin. He also suggests using a pepper, while Oomen mentions the possibility of carving a potato. They would certainly be easier to carve. And probably smell better.
In a hot debate about the relative merits of the turnip or the pumpkin at this Manx web site where Halloween is called Hop tu Naa, there’s a mention that in Peel on the Isle of Man, the turnips carved are the swede turnips (rutabagas in America) which have a long root you can hold in your hand, like a torch, rather than suspending the turnip from a string as in the directions above.
Photo of turnip lantern uploaded by Geni at wikipedia.org.
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun
McNeil, Marian, The Silver Bough, Volume 3