There are certain things we come to expect every Halloween. Candy. Orange buckets with flimsy plastic handles. Cotton spider webs stretched over hedges. Neighbors who get too into their decorations. And, of course, we expect jack-o’-lanterns. A fat pumpkin, carved to have a toothy grin and triangle eyes, is the symbol of Halloween. But, let me tell you, there’s a better option out there than carving the same old cucurbita: a turnip. A Turnip jack-o’-lantern is much creepier, much better version of the beloved All Hallows Eve symbol. I for one would love to see them sitting on many more front porches.
Carving faces into seasonal produce dates back to Celtic tradition. But the origin of the jack-o’-lantern stems from an ancient Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. As the story goes, Jack, a drunk and a scoundrel, was wandering home one night a bit blitzed and happened upon the devil, who had come to claim his scuffed-up soul. Through various shrewd tactics, Jack was able to dupe the devil on not one but two occasions and escape eternal torment. When Jack died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven and the Devil wouldn’t allow him into hell. He was thus forced to wander the world with a single ember of coal to light his way, which he placed inside a carved vessel. Folks began calling him Jack the Lantern or jack-o’-lantern for short.
The initial object of choice that was carved? The turnip, or rutabaga, both of which were plentiful. It was only until the Irish immigrated to the U.S. when they began to carve jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins, as the native crops were plentiful. Many countries, Scotland in particular, still carve turnips for Halloween.
I have no qualms with pumpkins. I carve one every year. I love doing it. But I think that a turnip jack-o-lantern is superior in that the root vegetable has more character in its skin. The natural gnarls, ridges, and wrinkles in the exterior of a turnip lend carved creations a much creepier aesthetic. So does the tuber’s natural taper. Faces carved into them look angrier, more weathered. They have more character, more of a sinister appeal. They look, cursed, like real heads that have shriveled and shrunk.
Just take a look at some of these creations:
Now, the one downside of turnip jack-o’-lanterns is that they’re a bit more difficult to carve than pumpkins. The insides are dense. They can be chipped away with a chisel, but a better option is to use a drill with a long spade bit to do the hollowing and then chisel away at the finer parts. Once the insides are hollowed out, however, the carving is more or less the same: figure out your design and have at it with a knife. Here’s a tutorial.
Despite the extra effort, I guarantee you that the end result will be much more satisfying than a standard pumpkin. No, you won’t get to roast pumpkin seeds. But you will get to scare the crap out of the neighborhood kids who walk by and stare in wonder at the shrunken head on your stoop.