Evil Irish Turnips Were the Original Jack-O'-Lanterns

Before pumpkins, turnips were the spooky lantern vegetable of choice—all because this guy Jack skipped out on his bar bill and messed with the Devil.

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Oct 30 2014, 10:00am

Photo via Flickr user Paul Stainthorp

Halloween is an odd one. It's the festival with a thousand faces, the holiday equivalent of the fidgety guy at school who changes his interests every week in the hopes that something will stick. That's why it's tough to trace its origins and find out why, on this day, we do odd things such as beg for candy from people we normally avoid, or dress up like Jimmy Savile.

But it's fair to say that, throughout all the pick 'n' mix weirdness, the pumpkin is a smug, orange constant. Right?

Not really. Before the beautifully incandescent beasts ruled the October nights, a slightly less impressive root vegetable was king.

Consider the turnip. Yeah, the little bulbous brassica that Michelle Obama recently turned into "a thing," which was weird. But they're absolutely terrifying, unlike pumpkins, which are increasingly becoming an arms race for who can carve out the least-crappy version of Justin Bieber's visage.

It's a fairly antiquated tradition now, but turnips have a stronger connection to Halloween than pretty much anything else. Sort of like how Bruce Wayne was replaced by Dick Grayson as Batman, turnips were the original jack-o'-lantern, warding off evil spirits before Christopher Columbus had even caught sight of a pumpkin, let alone brought its seeds back to Europe. Pumpkins, by contrast, are a pretty new thing, with the first official recording of them alongside Halloween being in 1866. Oh my gourd.

Both Halloween and the turnip lantern trace their origins to around the middle of the 17th century when Samhain—an Irish festival traditionally celebrated on October 31st to mark the end of the harvest—and Scotland's All Hallows began to merge, thanks to increased trade and immigration between the two countries. It's presumed that the Irish then brought the legend of jack-o'-lantern with them. Traditionally, both festivals were to celebrate the end of summer and take heed of a difficult winter coming.

"The candle inside the turnip used to mean the wandering soul in purgatory, but it also means the wandering 'Jack' who tried to trick the Devil and was condemned to wander the earth," says Nick Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night.

Stingy Jack is the old Faustian legend filtered through the Ireland's tradition of good drink and cheekiness. Not fancying the prospect of paying up for his pint, Jack tricks the Devil into becoming a coin to pay for it and then decides not to use it, choosing instead to keep the Devil in coin form (via the McGuffin of a crucifix) for bargaining purposes. Hilarity ensues.

A series of trifling episodes follow, involving trees and angry mobs, which eventually ends with the Devil promising not to take Jack's soul to Hell in return for his freedom. Eventually, Jack dies and finds himself in the logical conundrum that God, quite frankly, doesn't want anything to do with the sort of charming Irishman who could sleep with your entire family and then convince you it was a moral imperative to have done so, and the Devil, who has promised not to admit him to Hell.

Fucked, Jack is cast into a sort of purgatory, a land of eternal darkness, with nothing but a fleck of Hell's fire to light the way. Lonely and terribly hungover, Jack carves out a lantern from a turnip, into which he places the flame. He now wanders the world, forever begging for candy. The tale varies, but the message is eternal: don't buy a drink in Ireland you can't afford to pay for. This is, still, pretty sound advice.

Outside the realm of ghost stories, Rogers says turnips were "probably picked simply because they were cheap and available." Turnips remain a traditional Halloween item throughout Britain and Ireland, though it is rare to see them anymore, so dwarfed are they by pumpkins so big a bloody truck can only carry two. The festival is, according to Rogers, "making a comeback, having lost a bit of ground in the Referendum."

Turnips are often far more grotesque than pumpkins, which is quite right as they are fundamentally about warding people off. Children in Ireland and Scotland also used them, supposedly, as a lantern to help guide ancestral spirits home; they would walk door to door and offer a prayer for a dead relative in return for food. This is a far cry from the gaudy door-to-door candy bonanza of today, where stories of starvation and poor harvests have been replaced by images of plenty and dogs dressed as the Hulk.

It's tricky, however, to trace the veracity of much of the turnip and pumpkin lore (yes, turnip and pumpkin lore is now a thing), as David Skal, author of Death Makes a Holiday, writes: "Although every modern chronicle of the holiday repeats the claim that vegetable lanterns were a time-honoured component of Halloween celebrations in the British Isles, none gives any primary documentation."

We can, however, assume simple things. The reason for the shift to the ubiquitous pumpkin is prosaic. When Irish, Scottish, and English immigrants arrived in America, they were everywhere and turnips were nowhere. As Rogers says, "The pumpkin is an integral aspect of North American Halloween. On my street a truck came down the road selling them at $20 a pop. Pumpkins also related to Halloween arts and crafts—the paraphernalia of the holiday, with pumpkin-carving competitions."

But Rogers points out that pumpkins have not just usurped the turnip due only to their convenience. He also mentions how their flavour and tastiness has played a large part. "Pumpkins are also a massive part of American food," he tells me, explaining that the pumpkin's cultural dominance also has culinary roots. "Pumpkin pie is a staple of Thanksgiving in Canada as well as the USA."

The turnip, however, is not exported or used widely in cooking, because it's not—as Rogers puts it—part of either of Ireland's or Scotland's "staple foods." "In Ireland," he points out, 'you have the potato, and in Scotland, it's oats. These foods have spread throughout the world."

Pumpkins, like the United States itself, are big, vibrant and delicious. The poor turnip didn't stand a chance in the face of its muscular capitalism.