Making a Turnip Lantern

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.

Folklorist Ronald Hutton believes the lit lanterns represent the flickering lights seen in marshes which are believed to be the souls of unbaptized children.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. Cut a thick slice–about a quarter of the whole–off the top.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Get a candle and set it firmly in the socket.
  6. Make two holes near the top, one on each side of the face.
  7. 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.

...definitely more eerie, and certainly more unique, than the traditional jack o'lantern

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

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun
McNeil, Marian, The Silver Bough, Volume 3

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  1. Anna Wulfsong Belt   •  

    Mangels are kind of more like a sugar beet than a regular beet. They are primarily grown as livestock feed and I think you can get seeds from Seed Savers.

  2. beth   •  

    When my kids were in the Waldorf School they carved turnips. It was great fun and the kids loved them.

  3. Tracy   •  

    When I was pregnant with my son 19 years ago, I craved turnips. A young lady I worked with told me that my child would have lots of hair, because turnips are rapuns (sp?) and that’s where the story of Rapunzel originated. My son does indeed have lots of hair (blond, even!).

    Has anyone ever heard anything about this folk tale? I have Googled it and haven’t found anything on it.

  4. Christopher   •  


    You friend might have seen this:

    It’s a version of “Rapunzel” that was on television in the early ’80s. There may be some basis in the origin of the word – “rapa” is part of the Latin name for turnip. But this is what Wikipedia says:

    What is “Rapunzel”?

    It is difficult to be certain which plant species the Brothers Grimm meant by the word Rapunzel, but the following, listed in their own dictionary,[13] are candidates.

    1. Valerianella locusta, common names: Corn salad, mache, lamb’s lettuce, field salad. Rapunzel is called Feldsalat in Germany, Nuesslisalat in Switzerland and Vogerlsalat in Austria. In cultivated form it has a low growing rosette of succulent green rounded leaves when young, when they are picked whole, washed of grit and eaten with oil and vinegar. When it bolts to seed it shows clusters of small white flowers.[14] Etty’s seed catalogue[15] states Corn Salad (Verte de Cambrai) was in use by 1810.

    2. Campanula rapunculus is known as Rapunzel-Glockenblume in German, and as Rampion[16] in Etty’s seed catalogue, and although classified under a different family, Campanulaceae, has a similar rosette when young, although with pointed leaves. Some English translations of Rapunzel used the word Rampion. Etty’s catalogue states that it was noted in 1633, an esteemed root in salads, and to be sown in April or May. Herb catalogue Sand Mountain Herbs[17] describes the root as extremely tasty, and the rosette leaves as edible, and that its blue bell-flowers[18] appear in June or July.”

    3. Phyteuma spicata,[19] known as Ährige Teufelskralle in German.

  5. Starry Gal   •  

    As a child in Scotland (in the 1960s) we always made “neep” lanterns at Halloween, taking them with us when we visited neighbours. Yes, they were swede turnips. We would sing songs or recite poems, and receive sweets and money for our efforts. We were told that the lanterns helped to protect us from the souls of the dead which roamed the earth on All Hallow’s Eve.

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