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.