Getting to the root of it. Why carve a turnip?
A few years ago I was searching the internet to see if I could find a pumpkin patch to take my kids to in the south of France. Never found one by the way. They were all located too far from us, mainly outside of Paris. I did however discover something about the tradition of carving pumpkin Jack O’lanterns that was so different, so new to me, I actually didn’t believe it when I first read it.
** Photo source: Irish turnip (rutabaga) lantern on display in Ireland at the National Museum of Ireland- Country life.
The original European Jack-O-lanterns named for the Irish myth , were carved mainly from turnips and other roots such as rutabagas, potatoes or beets and looked truly grotesque and monstrous compared to today’s festive or goofy carved orange pumpkins.
In fact, it wasn’t until the mid 1800’s, when Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their custom of carving lanterns out of roots to the US and Canada where the tradition changed. The newly arrived immigrants discovered North American orange pumpkins were perfect for carving and so began the new custom of carving orange pumpkins which is now popular throughout the world, not just in North America.
The exception is Northern France who carve not turnips and not pumpkins but big sugar beets.
I decided to give turnip carving a go and created several turnip Jack O’lanterns this Halloween with my daughter. Of course we also carved a pumpkin and made pumpkins seeds.
Advantages of carving turnip Jack O’lanterns
To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of faith in carving turnips into Jack O’lanterns. I thought they would be more difficult than carving a pumpkin because I kept reading how the Irish and Scots found pumpkins easy to carve.
To my surprise, it was just as easy if not easier to carve a turnip. In a matter of 15 minutes, my daughter and I had carved several adorably scary turnip Jack O’lanterns. Something you can’t really do with a pumpkin because you have to first gut the pumpkin and then slowly work your knife through the thick skin of the pumpkin to carve it. Both can be very time consuming.
Here are 9 benefits to carving turnips and roots into Jack O’Lanterns instead of pumpkins.
- No scooping out messy seeds, no big pumpkin mess
- Turnips are smaller and more portable than pumpkins so you can easily use them as actual Jack O’lanterns or hang them from a tree outside.
- Turnips are also cheaper so you can afford to make dozens of carved turnips to display around the house, on your windowsills or outside.
- You can easily let your kids do a lot of the work because it’s easier for them to scoop than a big heavy pumpkin.
- With its reddish white exterior and root like characteristics, turnips look more interesting than a carved pumpkin. Maybe scarier?
- Candles tends to flicker more in a turnip because they are less protected than in a pumpkin which makes the turnip look spookier….. But the candle tends do get blown out more easily as a result. (not a positive)
- Unlike pumpkins, turnips and various other roots are fairly easy to find almost everywhere all year round. Even in France.
- No waste! After you scoop out the innards of the turnips, you can use the guts to make yummy mashed turnips.
- You can carve turnips and roots all year round into different things like votive holders unlike pumpkins which only look appropriate during Halloween. (see photos below)
English Heritage wants you to use turnips due to a possible pumpkin shortage
Photo source of English Heritage turnip carver and carved turnips
There have been several attempts to revive this almost forgotten tradition of carving turnip Jack O’lanterns. In 2015, a pumpkin shortage led to the English Heritage calling for Brits to rediscover and bring back the original tradition of turnip carving to address reduced supplies of pumpkins caused by wet weather. English Heritage even installed a number of ghoulishly carved turnips at the Dover Castle to inspire you. I don’t think it’s really caught on yet but time will tell.
Tools you need to carve a turnip or other root
Photo source: Diane Gilleland via Makezine.
The tools you need to cut and carve a turnip are pretty similar to a pumpkin.
- A knife to cut off the top
- Something to scoop out the guts- a melon baller scoop works way better than a spoon. The edges on a melon baller are sharper.
- A smaller blade to carve the details of your scary face onto the turnip.
- A poking tool might come in handy if you want to poke small holes into the sides of the turnip and run string through the holes so you can hang the turnip from a tree or something.
Turnip and root carving inspiration
When it comes to carving you’re turnip, which actually look terrifying when carved, you are limited only by your imagination. Here a few photos to wet your inspiration.
Photo source of English Heritage carved turnips
Hang a bunch of turnip Jack O’lanterns in the yard
Turnips don’t weigh very much so they can easily be hung from a tree in the backyard or on your front doorstep. Carry them on your trick or treats too.
Carve your turnip upside down with the root tip still attached
photo source = Mark god of thunder
Carve a rutabaga
Photo source Munchies.vice
In addition to turnips, rutabagas were also carved into jack O’lanterns. These guys look even scarier than turnips with their brown skin and extruding roots that remind me of mole hairs.
photo source = The invisible underground
Make a simple turnip votive all year round
Photo source Martha Stewart
For a more elegant turnip that you can use all year round, turn that turnip into a tea light holder to put on the dinner table or coffee table. Martha Stewart says to use varying sizes for the most interesting display and not to leave lit candles unattended. DUH!
Photo source = Lovely Greens
Head over to Lovely greens to learn how to make these cute carved turnip lanterns.
Carve other roots like potatoes
Photo source = Odyssey
If turnips are not available or you want to try your hand at carving other roots and vegetable like the Irish, Scots and English used to, just walk into your kitchen and take a look in your vegetable drawer. Pull out a potato, a beet, a butternut squash or a rutabaga and start carving away.
The 2 Beet Lantern carving customs in France
photo source= ville de Longvilliers
A very small percentage of the French population actually get into the spirit of Halloween let alone carve pumpkins. As I mentioned earlier however, certain parts of Norther France have the tradition of carving not pumpkins, not turnips but beets. And not any old beet you find at the supermarket. They carve huge sugar beets which are much larger than your garden variety that you find at the supermarket.
Grimacing Beets of Lorraine “les Betteraves Grimaçantes”
photo source: B@ch’ Boetz
The children of Lorraine, a historical region in northeast France which borders Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany have a tradition of carving grimacing beet lanterns “les Betteraves Grimaçantes”. They then place the carved beet lanterns on their windowsill. This night occurs on the eve of “all Saints day” but is not called Halloween. Instead it is called ” nuit des betteraves grimaçantes or Rommelbootzen” which translates to “The night of the grimacing beets”.
photo source = Blog d’air
Decorated Beets of Boulonnais during Christmas
In Boulonnais, a coastal area in northern France near Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, there is a carved beet lantern festival called “la fête des guénels”.
A Guénels is a carved beet lantern and is the middle aged phonetic spelling for the word Gai Noel.
The custom of of beet carving in this region is centred around the story of Petit Pierre. There are several versions of this story but the gist of the folklore is that Petit Pierre, a very poor boy wanted to make some money for Christmas. So on the eve of Christmas, he carved a face into a beet and placed a candle in it to use as a lantern to illuminate the dark night so he could go door to door asking the bourgeois boulonnais for money.
The municipality of Boulogne drops truck loads of huge beets in the street. Kids then go around colleting their beets to carve which they will then use to go door to door asking for treats while singing the traditional song called « Ô Guénel » .
Although it sounds a lot like Halloween and trick-or-treating and perhaps is related to the Celtic tradition, it is actually celebrated for Christmas but only in the Boulonnais area of France which has it’s own unique customs and traditions.
There is also a a festival of carved beets called “la fête des guénels” with a beet carving contest. After the contest, children parade in the streets « défilé des guénels » asking passer-byers for sweets «les sucreries» while again singing a traditional song called « Ô Guénel » .
Happy root carving.