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Turnip Lanterns

Long before carving pumpkins became a staple of Halloween there was a tradition of carving turnips to create lanterns on the 31st of October. These lanterns were left overnight on gateposts, doorways and in windows in many parts of Britain. They were also attached to long poles as part of the festivities ,paraded around town and thrust before high windows to frighten the occupants, part of the tradition of trickery on this date.

These lanterns represented the spirits of the dead and are the origin of the pumpkin lanterns that are now part of the Halloween festivities. The use of a pumpkin stems from when the tradition passed to America, where pumpkins were available, and, easier to carve out than turnips. One theory is that it is an Irish tradition, moving to America with Irish immigration in the 19th Century. The tradition is also found on the Isle of Man and in Scotland.

I have talked to quite a few people who remember carving out turnip lanterns when they were children and with this in mind I decided to give it a go with help from my 4 year old son. A trip to the shops soon led to the discovery that there must be a world shortage of turnips as I had to settle for a swede, close enough I suppose although much smaller than a turnip.

After getting it home I soon discovered why pumpkins have replaced the turnip: the inside is rock hard and the usual spoon carving was not going to get me anywhere (unless it had a razor edge, which would make it a bit of a liability as a spoon).

As luck would have it I still had a few tools left over from wood carving days, in particular a couple of gouges, which are semi circular chisel used for carving depressions in wood. This made the carving a bit easier but it still took about 20 minutes. You can get bent knives for carving bowls and one of these may have been the perfect tool if I had one.

After carving out the inside I set about drawing the pattern on the outside, ably helped by my son (as he couldn’t really help with the carving) which I then cut out with a sharp knife. Once the inside has been carved the rest of the process is no different to creating a pumpkin lantern although obviously on a much smaller scale (especially with a swede).

One word of warning though there may be good reason they were left outside overnight: after getting warm with the candle inside they really stink, I am talking rotten cabbage stench here, so the lantern was quickly consigned to the back step. The odd thing was it was gone in the morning, hopefully not to return on Halloween.

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Daniel Parkinson
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Daniel Parkinson
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Re: Turnip Lanterns

"A SWEDE is a TURNIP! I've been arguing this for 20 years with southerners. We used the ones my grandfather grew on his allotment (not that we told him!)"

I was wondering the difference was, they offer both at Tescos, but the turnips were tiny the ones on this
look a better size or are they swedes, now I am confused.
The one I carved turned up under the hedge, perhaps it was trying to make it to the gatepost :-)

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Re: Turnip Lanterns

Hee hee,

Yes we always had one when I was a kid.
By the time I turned ten or so, I was given the uncarved swede myself and left to go at it with whatever I could find best in the drawer. Because it's hard inside, it's tricky with an ordinary knife not to cut the outer skin, or indeed yourself. I learned somehow, I think I developed a method, cutting deep cris-crosses and getting the squares out, layer by layer.

The advantage with these is that they're usually tough enough to put some string or thick wire in like a handle, and carry, whereas pumpkins from shops are softer. The pumpkins I grew one year were slightly harder than standard shop ones, coz I think I'd followed Peter Seabrook's instructions to let it weather a bit once cut from the plant, and the weather will harden the hide.

What was that story on Jackanory way back, about a village in Scotland was it, and the final scene was everybody ended up with glowing Jack o' Lanterns on their cottage doors?

The DVD "Pumpkin Moon" is a nice little story for Hallowe'en, too. Hee hee, there's a special added feature hosted by some crazy puppet, showing you how to make all kinds of Blue Peter style props and figures for Hallowe'en!

Alice Quayle
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Re: Turnip Lanterns - the Isle of Man tradition - of Hop-Tu-Naa

What you are carving there IS a turnip! The southerners call them swedes but until a few years ago they were always called turnips here - ie as a kid we carved turnip lanterns and is the same veg you used. Also sometimes called 'moots'.

We use them the right way up and use the stem end as a chimney.
drill two holes quite near the top (above the 'ears') to tie string in.

Then as kids we would put a lit candle in and carry them around the neighbourhood and sing the 'hop-tu-naa' song and be given small change donations by the neighbours.

Hop tu naa is Manx for Halloween, it means the same as hogmanay, means new year, as the 1st november was the start of the celtic new year. Pronounce it 'hop-chew-nay'
(nay as rhymes with say)

Most people I know who grew up here are fond of the smell of roasting turnip mixed with candles burning as they associate it with hop tu naa, sillyness, eating apples strung up hanging from doorways, and free money!

Drilling out the turnip-
Nowadays people mostly use an electric drill with appropriate fittings a nice wide bit to drill out the inside, and a smaller one for the chimney, and smaller again for the string holes.

Manx National Heritage have revived the turnip carving by putting on a production line drilling out the moots at their farm in cregneash ~

The modern hop-tu-naa song (Douglas version)

Hop-tu-Naa, Hop-tu-Naa,My mother's gone awayAnd she won't be back until the morningJinnie the Witch flew over the houseTo fetch the stick to lather the mouseHop-tu-Naa, Hop-tu-Naa,My mother's gone awayAnd she won't be back until the morning




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