This month we celebrate Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Eve, and, if you want to go really old school, Samhain. Samhain is derived from Old Irish and means “Summers End.” Celtic people celebrated the changing of the seasons during Samhain. Because they were going from a season of “light” to a season of “dark,” ancient Celts believed the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could be crossed, allowing spirits, both good and bad, to pass. Therefore the Celts created a variety of traditions to honor and protect themselves from the dead during this important harvest festival. Dressing in costume and lighting bonfires were just a few ways to honor and appease the spirits. As the pagan Samhain evolved into the not-so-Pagan Halloween, many of these traditions continued. Apple bobbing, trick or treating, and turnip carving can all be traced back to Samhain.
Alright, so turnip carving didn’t exactly take off like the rest of these traditions did. Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their All Hallows’ Eve customs to America with them, including carving turnips or rutabagas to ward off evil spirits. Being the smart people that they were, they quickly discovered that carving pumpkins was a whole lot easier than carving turnips. Hence, the Jack O’ Lantern we know and love today. Nevertheless, there is a small underground movement afoot aimed at reviving the tradition of turnip carving. I am, so far, the only member of the group I know of, but I hear there are whole groups of people, especially in Ireland, devoted to the cause. Before I make my case for the turnip, let’s explore how and why this tradition got started.
The practice of carving hollowed-out turnips, known as “Samhnag” in Scottish Gaelic, dates back many hundreds of years. The turnips were turned into lanterns by placing a burning ember or small candle inside to commemorate the souls in purgatory. The small lanterns were also placed in windows to ward off the evil dead. The scarier the face, the more effective it was at keeping malevolent spirits away. Later, perhaps because these traditions were a bit too Pagan for some tastes, the legend of “Stingy Jack” arose to explain this custom.
“Stingy Jack” is a bit of Irish folklore about a drunken miser who dared to challenge the Devil and paid the ultimate price for it. There are many variations of the story but the basic outline is that Jack was out drinking with the Devil one night and when the tab arrived, Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay the barkeep. The Devil would then turn himself back into his original form and leave the barkeep none the wiser. The Devil agreed, but instead of paying the bartender, Jack placed the coin in his pocket next to a crucifix, thus trapping the Devil. Jack kept him there for quite a while, only agreeing to let him out when the Devil promised never to come and claim Jack’s soul. Jack died 10 years later and found himself banished from Heaven for his wicked ways. He went to the Devil to find a resting place but the Devil refused to take him, citing their earlier agreement.
Thus, Jack was doomed to wander the earth in eternal darkness. The Devil, feeling sorry for Jack, offered him a gift: a single ember to light his way. Jack hollowed out a turnip, his favorite food, to hold the ember and illuminate his path. Tradition holds that placing a lighted turnip on your doorstep will remind the wandering Jack of his penance, thus keeping him from mischief.
Whether derived from Celtic ritual or Irish folklore, turnip carving caught on. That is, until the big, soft, delicious pumpkin was discovered and turnips went right out the window. Being the good Irish gal that I am, I decided to forgo carving pumpkins this year and devote myself to the turnip. The hard, smelly, bad tasting turnip. I can’t say that I have ever knowingly eaten a turnip in my life. After carving one I am not about to start. But I can say that carving a turnip takes determination and guts, and the end result is totally worth it. Here is how you do it.
- Pick out a turnip (the larger the better. Try to get one with some color.)
- Cut the bottom off to make a flat surface.
- Grab every knife, saw, or sharp spoon at your disposal.
- Slice off the top of the turnip to make the lid.
- Spend the next hour carving out the center. Have Air Freshener and band-aids at the ready.
- Carve a face into the turnip. Try to make it look like a Gaelic face. I don’t know what that looks like but we want to be authentic.
- Place a burning ember inside. If you do not have a burning ember available, a tea light will do.
- Place the lid back on and you have a Jack O’ Turnip. (Warning, the lid will catch on fire. Take your pictures immediately.)
Give turnip carving a try, I can’t say you won’t be sorry, you probably will, but at least you can say you were keeping it old school. Happy Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, and Samhain to everybody!