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 them. This tradition has a further specific root, namely, it was linked with a trickster type character called Stingy Jack. The legend goes that Jack tricked the Devil on two different occasions not to take his soul, and when Jack died, neither God nor the Devil wanted the poor fella (suggesting a Christian metaphor for purgatory too). He roamed the earth with a lump of hot coal in a carved-out turnip as his only guiding light becoming known as “Jack of the Lantern” and later “Jack O’Lantern”. It was only after the 1840s following the Irish Famine-related migration to the US that the pumpkin came into vogue. Pumpkins were plentiful in the US and decidedly easier to carve than a turnip.
So maybe it is time to turn back the clock and jettison the shiny commercial pumpkin for the rustic humble turnip this Halloween. What is more, the giant turnip is much uglier than said pumpkins, and even without carving can be terrifying. On top that, you basically need power-tools to make an indentation in a turnip, and the carving process will often result in one of the family losing a limb or eye adding to the gore associated with Halloween. Finally, lighting a candle inside a turnip results in the most awful smell, transforming your home instantly into Hades itself.
The turnip is thus the perfect practical Halloween accoutrement. The lowly turnip also reminds us of our past and beckons us to question what we now consider tradition. Reverting to turnips for Halloween might also challenge the rampant commercialisation now associated with the holiday, and particularly the environmental impact of plastic pumpkins and sweetie buckets.
But most importantly, the turnip reminds me that I really should believe my wife more often. But then again, where might that lead? The next thing I will begin campaigning to save Red squirrels because if I don’t the fairies will get me. Worse still, I may discover that there really are wild cats in the Irish hills and more specifically a Brazilian capybara living in Derry on the banks of the River Foyle — well that’s what she told me anyway.
Published by Brandon Hamber on Medium, 31 October 2020.