Mangelwurzels Make the Creepiest Jack-o-Lanterns
In the Somerset town of Hinton St. George, locals mark Halloween with "Punkies," hollowed-out mangolds or mangelwurzels (a type of beetroot) containing a lit candle.
Photo by Sheridan Casson.
It's that time of year again. Supermarkets, coffee chains, and seemingly unrelated food brands are ramming all things pumpkin down our throats. We'll be spewing orange from now until Christmas.
But our American neighbours' hyped-up, squash-centric version of Halloween does somewhat overshadow the traditional British rituals associated with All Hallows' Eve, like apple bobbing and soul caking.
It doesn't have to be this way. What if I told you it were possible to celebrate the spooky holiday without everyone's favourite October squash?
In the small town of Hinton St. George in Somerset, an ancient, pumpkin-free Halloween practice stands firm: Punkie Night.
Taking place on the last Thursday of October, the regional festival has much in common with American pumpkin carving and the Irish tradition of turning turnips into disfigured ghouls. The difference is that locals carve terrifying faces into "Punkies."
Not—as the name may suggest—a punk rocker's face, a Punkie is actually a hollowed-out mangold or mangelwurzel (a type of beetroot) with a lit candle inside. Very much like a conventional Jack-o-Lantern, only a lot creepier and harder to carve.
"There are some experts in the village who work fast but most folks need a good afternoon's work to carve the very hard innards of the vegetable," explains Sheridan Casson, organiser of this year's Punkie Night. "The mangelwurzel is much, much harder than a pumpkin and the rules of Punkie Night mean that you can't break through the skin."
There's also more technique involved in carving a Punkie than the standard scrape 'n' scoop of a pumpkin Jack-o-Lantern.
"The trick is to choose a mangold with a more rounded bottom as carving and taking out the insides is not an easy job," advises local attendee, Lizzi Hosking. "They're much harder to carve than a pumpkin and the design is then just scraped onto the skin, it's not cut all the way through like a pumpkin. If it goes through, you're disqualified."
No one knows exactly when Punkie Night started but records show that the carving custom has been going for at least 100 years.
"The menfolk of the village went to Chiselborough Fair to sell wares but instead ended up drinking too much," explains local historian Charles Bird. "The women and children of the village went to fetch them and because it was so dark and windy, they carved and used mangelwurzels to help guide the drunken men home."
The Mangelwurzels themselves were once used as a winter animal feed but the knobbly root vegetables are now so sought after at this time of the year that the Hinton St. George farmer who grows them doesn't reveal the crop's location.
But there's more to the Punkie Night story than lit beetroots. Casson adds: "The men—inebriated and tired—were shocked to see what looked like eerie faces coming through the gloom towards them. Many ran away, thinking that the lights were ghosts or witches coming to haunt them."
In other words, Punkie Night derives from men being too pissed to walk home after a big night and getting scared shitless by some vegetables. Today, Hinton St. George locals continue the tradition with their own light-guiding parade.
"It's said that there's a connection between the ghosts of Halloween and the Punkies as ghosts of All Hallows'," says Casson. "They're said to be the souls of the unburied and in an old history book—Somerset Dialect by Ruth Tongue—she talks of 'Spunkies,' the local name for the little balls of marsh gas which local tradition believed were the souls of unbaptised babies."
And what good is an old English tradition without a little sing-song? During the Punkie Night light-guiding ritual, attendees stop at key locations along their parade to sing the "Punkie Song." It goes something like this:
It's Punkie Night tonight, It's Punkie Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light. It's Punkie Night tonight, It's Punkie Night tonight, It's Punkie Night tonight. Adam and Eve won't believe, It's Punkie Night tonight.
The song has gained popularity beyond its Hinton St. George walls, spreading to the neighbouring villages of Chiselborough and beyond. It even featured on the old BBC children's show The Worst Witch, with trainee witches chanting their own version of the jaunty tune.
The Punkie: guiding light to cavorting villagers, musical inspiration to fictional witches, and party excuse for small southwestern towns.
Who needs pumpkins?