Opinion

Why You Are Doing Hallowe’en All Wrong

Return to the turnip and save the planet

Brandon Hamber
4 min readOct 31, 2020

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Our Halloween Turnip 2020

Turns out the story of Halloween is somewhat like the story of the grey squirrel. Brought to the UK and Ireland from the US in Victorian times as living-ornaments for the wealthy, the adaptable and competitive grey squirrel has thrived contributing to the decline of the indigenous red squirrel. If you asked a child in Ireland to draw a squirrel more than likely, they would pen a grey rather than a red squirrel. Conversely, Halloween, now considered the most quintessential of so-called US consumption holidays, was a late import to the US from Ireland. But the US tradition has now overtaken all others.

I was first alerted to the origins of Halloween by my wife, who is from Ireland, and told me that Halloween originated in that part of the world and as a child they carved turnips rather than pumpkins. Being of a sceptical mind, I thought this was a tradition peculiar to her home town of Derry or alternatively simply the practical outworking of the fact that fat American pumpkins are not common in the local environs. Then I did a bit of research. Turns out the turnip really is linked to the root of Halloween and not the pumpkin.

Historians date a form of Halloween back to the prehistoric Celtic festival of Samhain. The celebration marked the seasonal harvest when herds were brought back from the fields for the winter. The Celtic festival, however, and I collapse a range practices here for brevity, involved the recognition and worship of ancestors, and in some cases included human and animal sacrifice. The dead were said to roam the earth at this time. Fires were lit to scare off the ghouls but equally, banquets were prepared for them, along with various masked celebrations. This went on for hundreds of years. After the advent of Christianity, the Catholic Church eventually gave up trying to change these so-called pagan rituals and co-opted the festival. In 835 Pope Gregory IV re-branded Samhain as All Saints’ Day (“All Hallows” Day, originally 1 November), and hence Hallowe’en.

During these various festivals, children across the British Isles had a tradition of carving out assorted root vegetables, but mainly turnips (and the odd potato in Ireland, of course) and putting a light in…

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Brandon Hamber

Hume O'Neill Professor of Peace at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Medium is my popular writing space. Academic publications at brandonhamber.com