Carving a scary face in a pumpkin is a common Halloween custom. The tradition appears to be one that we have acquired from the United States. However, history reveals a custom that travelled across the Atlantic from Ireland as a turnip and returned as a pumpkin.
The custom of creating Halloween lanterns arrived in America from Ireland. It was a Celtic tradition to hollow out turnips at Samhain, the precursor to Halloween, to ward off evil spirits. Our ancestors believed that the souls of the dead in the past year would return to visit their old homes. The time was fraught with suspicion, fear and danger.
Stingy Jack v. The Devil
Popular folklore associates the lanterns with the tale of Stingy Jack. He boasted that he could trick even the Devil himself. When the Devil appeared Stingy Jack tricked him into climbing an apple tree. Stingy Jack placed crucifixes at the base of the tree meaning that the Devil was stuck above them in the tree. Stingy Jack only removed the crucifixes once he had made the Devil promise that he would not take his soul when he died.
Jack O’ Lantern
When Stingy Jack eventually died, Saint Peter would not allow him into Heaven because of the mean and cruel life that he had led. So Stingy Jack went down to Hell, but the Devil would not let him into Hell either because of the apple tree promise. Stingy Jack was bound to wander forever between Heaven and Hell. He complained that there was no light. The Devil threw him a piece of coal from Hell. Stingy Jack fashioned a lantern out of a turnip, thus creating the Halloween Jack O’Lantern.
From Turnips to Pumpkins
The white turnip, Brassica rapa subsp. rapa, is one of the oldest root crops in the world. Turnips were traditionally seen as animal fodder. In times of famine, people were obliged to eat them too. In fact, they were commonly perceived as peasant food. When the potato famine drove the Irish settlers to America, they took their customs with them. The humble turnip was replaced by the pumpkin as a Jack O’Lantern. The advantage is that pumpkins are larger and much easier to carve. Today, we forget our original custom in favour of carving pumpkins like Americans.
Turnips for Hop tu Naa
However, they still maintain the tradition of carving turnips at Halloween on the Isle of Man. There, Halloween is called Hop tu Naa in Manx, the language of the island. Traditional symbols include a cat, witch, castle, fishing boat, the moon, stars and cottage with smoke emerging from chimney.
See the video in the link below and the Culture Vannin website for more information:
- Bacon, Josephine et al. (2017). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, & Herbs. Chartwell Books.
- Brennan, Aoife (2023). The Jack O’ Lantern. Why we carve pumpkins at Halloween? Your Wiltshire Magazine. October 2023.
- Culture Vannin (2023). Hop Tu Naa
- Grannan, Cydney (2017). Why Do We Carve Pumpkins at Halloween?. Encyclopedia Britannica.
- van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005). Food Plants of the World. An Illustrated Guide. Timber Press
Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited.