It all started with the Celtic festival, Samhain.
Although we may celebrate many holidays, it seems as if Halloween is becoming a favorite of many. We appreciate the decorations, the trick-or-treating, and the fun.
One of the unmistakable parts of Halloween is the pumpkin. Perhaps we have carved pumpkins since we were little children and there has never been a Halloween where one is not on our front porch.
Although we may have carved many pumpkins in our lifetime, we probably never carved one like they did originally. It happened long before the pumpkin was part of the holiday and turnips were the vegetable of choice.
The holiday was known as Samhain, and it was a Celtic festival. It began on Sunset on October 31 and lasted through November 1. At the time, they felt the spirits would return to the mortal realm and could do damage to humans.
In order to keep the spirits away, people would carve frightening expressions into turnips, beets, and potatoes.
According to the Smithsonian, there were additional reasons why you might want to carve a vegetable. At the time, it was difficult to own your own metal lantern because they were expensive. Hollowing out the root vegetable allowed you to carry a light without all of the expense.
The senior curator at Dublin’s EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, Nathan Mannion spoke with National Geographic, saying the following: “Over time people started to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without extinguishing the ember.”
There are also many stories that may lead to the use of vegetables prior to the pumpkin as well. This includes an Irish Legend that talked about a man named jack that got one over on the devil. As a result of his trick, he was not allowed to go to heaven or hell.
Jack received one glowing coal from the devil and put it inside of a hollow turnip. He would then wander around the earth for all eternity. If you happen to see some light over Ireland’s marshy land, you might say that it was Jack and his lantern.
Sounds a lot like jack-o’-lantern, doesn’t it?
Irish immigrants also carried this thought with them when they came to the US in the 19th century. Although people didn’t quickly pick up on the use of turnips, they did eventually make the switch to pumpkins. After all, pumpkins were easier to come by and were easier to carve.
Turnip lanterns still do better in at least one area than pumpkin lanterns. That is on the Isle of Man. Citizens in that area celebrate a holiday known as Hop-Tu-Naa. It is similar to Halloween, but the children carry around turnip lanterns and collect either coins or candy.