Today, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns is ubiquitous with Halloween. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, chiseling ghoulish grins into turnips was the more common practice (at least in Ireland and other Celtic nations).
The spooky tradition was part of Samhain, an ancient pagan festival that marked the end of summer and the beginning of the Celtic new year and long winter ahead. (Samhain translates to “summer’s end” in Gaelic.) Kicking off at sundown on October 31 and continuing through November 1, Samhain ushered in the transition from the autumn equinox to the winter solstice. During those two days, ancient Celts believed that the veil between life and death was at its narrowest, allowing spirits to roam freely between both realms.
Celts approached this turning point with both anticipation and dread, fearing that they would unknowingly cross paths with wayward fairies, monsters or ancestral spirits. A particularly ominous entity was Stingy Jack, who was believed to have “tricked the devil for his own monetary gain,” writes Cydney Grannan for Encyclopedia Britannica. Because of this, God banned him from heaven, and the devil banned him from hell, forcing him to “roam earth for eternity.”
For protection from Stingy Jack and other apparitions, people in the British Isles began carving faces into pieces of produce—particularly turnips, but in some cases potatoes, radishes and beets. Celebrants placed lit candles inside the cavities, similar to the pumpkin jack-o’-lanterns of modern Halloween. They believed leaving the spooky carvings outside their homes or carrying them as lanterns would protect them from harm’s way while offering a flicker of light that could cut through their dark surroundings.
“Metal lanterns were quite expensive, so people would hollow out root vegetables,” Nathan Mannion, a senior curator at EPIC: The Irish Migration Museum, told National Geographic’s Blane Bachelor last year. “Over time people started to carve faces and designs to allow light to shine through the holes without extinguishing the ember.”
According to Sarah Mac Donald of Catholic News Service (CNS), the National Museum of Ireland—Country Life in County Mayo houses a plaster cast of a turnip carving “with [a] pinched angry face” in its collections.
“The records we have for the [original] lantern from Donegal show it was donated in 1943 by a schoolteacher in the village of Fintown, who said she was donating it because nobody was making this type of lantern anymore, though it was a tradition that was remembered in the area,” Clodagh Doyle, keeper of the National Museum of Ireland’s Irish Folklife Division, told CNS in 2017. Curators made a cast of the “ghost turnip,” which dated to the turn of the 20th century and was close to disintegration.
Root vegetable carvings were just one aspect of Samhain. Revelers also built bonfires and used food and drinks as bribes should they come across anything inhuman lurking in the night. Dressing up in costume was a common practice during this raucous event, presaging the costume-wearing tradition of today. Additionally, wrote Kirstin Fawcett for Mental Floss in 2016, “Celtic priests [or Druids] ... practiced divination rituals and conducted rites to keep ghouls at bay—but since they didn’t keep written records, many of these practices remain shrouded in mystery.”
Over the centuries, Samhain transformed into All Hallows’ Eve, the evening before November 1 and what’s now called Halloween. But the practice of carving jack-o’-lanterns, albeit in a slightly different medium, stuck—and remains an iconic part of the bewitching autumn holiday.
“Halloween is one of the few festivals of the calendar year that is still practiced in much the same way as it was for generations,” says Doyle in a museum statement. “Before electricity, the countryside was a very dark place, adding to the scariness of the festival.”