Sandy’s Garden ... How Turnips Became Pumpkins

Sandy Simpson

Sandy Simpson

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I was shopping in one of my local supermarkets on the penultimate Saturday in October when I caught sight of a family.

A mum with two primary school age children and dad (presumably) wheeling a large trolley loaded to the gunwales with pumpkins; and when I write, ‘loaded to the gunwales’ that is exactly what I mean, for one of the children had the task of ensuring that the topmost pumpkins did not roll over the side of the trolley. Yes, yes, I did know that we were just over one week short of Hallowe’en; and I had noticed that the shop had crates of pumpkins, shelves of Hallowe’en-packaged snacks and nibbles and a huge display of Hallowe’en costumes. But just what that family was proposing to do with what looked like half-a-hundredweight of pumpkins is beyond my imagining.

What I didn’t notice in that supermarket was a display of turnips. Ah, when I were a lad, we ‘ad to make our Hallowe’en lanterns from neeps, you know, neeps with a nightlight (called a tea light nowadays) inside ‘em, lanterns which stank something terrible after a couple of hours. And some other things we didn’t have were pumpkin carving stencils, access to 1000+ ideas about pumpkin carvings on Pinterest … “the world’s catalogue of ideas” … or anything remotely approaching the concept of this headline from America’s abc News, “Pumpkin carvings get political with ‘Trumpkins’ and ‘Howl-ary Clinton’ jack-o’-lanterns.”

And one must go much farther back in time than my childhood to find the beginnings of the custom of hollowing out large root vegetables. We believe that gourds were the first types of vegetables cultivated by our ancestors of some 10 000 years ago, when man began the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. These first farmers used the dried, hollowed gourds as storage vessels. I don’t know why or when the custom of carving decorative shapes into the dried gourd shells developed, but it seems logical that people who made decorative jewellery and decorated their weapons might want to decorate their household pots.

Similarly, one must go farther back in time than my childhood to find people who were used to seeing ignis fatuus … “a light that sometimes appears in the night over marshy ground and is often attributable to the combustion of gas from decomposed organic matter,” to quote Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary … back to the days when the majority of people lived on the land. Ignis fatuus was commonly known as will-o’-the-wisp in England and was called jack-o’-lantern in Scotland and Ireland. Again, I simply don’t know exactly when the custom of carving turnips or extra-large potatoes into crude lanterns began, but it is thought to have started during the 19th century. In Stations of the Sun, the author Ronald Hutton recounts how, on the eve of All Saints’ Day (November 1) young Scottish pranksters used to throw cabbages at doors, turn animals round in their shafts, torment elderly women and generally make a nuisance of themselves, pretending to be evil spirits. He writes that, “The traditional illumination for guisers or pranksters abroad on the night in some places was provided by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins.” The ‘some places’ in the text refers to parts of Scotland and Ireland; and these unexpected lights in the night were called jack-o-lanterns.

Emigrant people of Celtic origin took this custom to America, where it caught on big-time during the twentieth century; big business latched on to an opportunity; and now the American version of Hallowe’en … trick-or-treat … has come across the Atlantic to haunt us. But I still have no idea why one family wanted a supermarket trolley-load of pumpkins!