The Everyday Lore Project

30 October 2020 – Jack-o’-Lanterns

30 October 2020 – Jack-o’-Lanterns

Consider me a total turnip convert. Due to yesterday’s disappointing mangelwurzel reveal, I thought I should quickly carve a replacement, it being Halloween and all. The question was, what from? Jack-o’-lanterns, apart from being very tedious to type, have a long tradition of being made out of turnips and swedes, and I suspect any other root vegetable that was at hand. Pumpkins are a relatively new addition to the canon having migrated from Northern American traditions in the 1980s. 

The name Jack-o’-lantern stretches back to the 17th century, to mean night watchman but then it morphed into describing ghost lights, Will-o’-the-Wisps, Cornish pixies and the like. However, today was all about the seasonal candle holding variety. So I asked Twitter what I should do:

Ignoring the result and got myself a turnip AND a swede. Two of each in fact, in case I needed a backup. Or a snack. I didn’t bother with a pumpkin as I’ve carved loads of those before.  

I started with the turnip. They are tiny compared to pumpkins, and this was a big turnip. I sliced off the bottom to give me a stable base to work with, sliced off a lid, then began to gouge. While heavier going than scooping out a pumpkin, the mess was considerably less. No stringy bits sticking to my fingers. But also no seeds to roast in the oven with salt and chilli flakes. 

The skin was also much easier to puncture with my scalpel to cut out the features. I’m rubbish at features, even when I’ve cheated and used a stencil, it’s not been the greatest. This turnip turned out less menacing, more several pints of cider and black jolly. And it was so shallow that the lid snuffed out the candle almost immediately, so it had to be worn at a jaunty angle to accommodate the flame. But the size really did make it feel more like a tealight holder than a lack-o’-lantern. Cute, though.

Next was the swede. This was much more hard work and it felt like it took a long time to burrow down to the base. By the end, my palm was red and sore from the spoon handle as I repeated a dig and lever manoeuvre to scrape out the innards. The swede wasn’t hugely bigger than the turnip but it felt more substantial. This particular swede also had a touch of a Kilroy-was-here nose, which made the features easier to work out. Like the turnip the scalpel worked a treat. Unlike the turnip, I put the LED light I was sent for just this purpose inside, and it’s now flickering like the real thing, but without the smell of gently cooking root vegetable. 

Sometimes I have to remind myself this project isn’t a chore (although I have hoovered as part of it). It’s been a bit of a week, and the foetal position was calling. But instead I took a deep breath, and stood hollowing out tubers with a grapefruit spoon for about an hour this evening. And now I have two rather wonderful Jack-o’-lanterns. And the ingredients for a foot moisturiser, and one of the nine for a Mash of Nine Sorts for tomorrow night. Which is not bad going, really.

I could do without the smell of burning turnip though.

The Everyday Lore Project has been running since St Distaff’s Day on 7 January 2020 and will run until 12th Night on 6 January 2021. It’s lunacy, I know, but I’m nearly done now. However, there’s still time to join in, you can subscribe and share posts. Or even suggest your own folklore for me to try. If you read back over the 308 or so posts I’ve churned out this year, you’ll see I’m pretty much game for anything.


Simpson, J. and Roud, S. (2001) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Vickery, R. (2019) Vickery’s Folk Flora, An A-Z of the Folklore and Uses of British and Irish Plants, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Published by Liza Frank

Author of My Celebrity Boyfriend. Obsessed with hula hooping, sons of preachermen and fresh dates, sometimes all at the same time. Curator of Folklore Agony and The Everyday Lore Project.

2 comments on “30 October 2020 – Jack-o’-Lanterns”

  1. Glorious Barbara says:

    Dare I ask what you would have done with a turnip-shaped thingy?…

    1. You may dare. You may not get an answer though, Nathaniel….

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