Turnip carving? It must be Halloween

I’ve written before about Halloween, citing a spine-tingling poem and stories of children stolen by the good people. I loved this time as a child, that feeling of uncertainty, that strange things could happen on this one night when the membrane between our world and the next was thin and fragile, when we were on the cusp of winter and the short dark days. My mum told me how one year, one of the men she worked with saw the banshee on his way home late on Halloween night. The banshee was sitting in a window, high up in the ruins of Newtown Cathedral, combing out her long grey hair and wailing. This was just at the end of our road! I was terribly impressed.

In our family, we didn’t go calling on houses at Halloween. None of our friends did either. Most years, though, a group of young lads would call to the door masked and disguised, singing songs and playing the guitar, and in return we would give them coins and nuts. Once they had enough coins, they would go to the pub. I don’t know what they did with the nuts.

Aside from that excitement, we just ate barm brack and mixed nuts, and played games involving apples. We ducked for apples in basins of water. And we tried to snap bites of an apple as it spun round on a string hung in the middle of the doorway. This snap-apple game got more complex over the years. My dad made a small cross-piece from two pieces of wood. At each end he hammered a nail through and we stuck the apples on the nails. Four apples spinning round, and my brother and I trying to take a bite with our hands behind our backs. And then my mum would kiss us goodbye and head to her night shift as a nurse in the local hospital. As soon as she was out of sight, my dad would replace two of the apples with lighted candles. And then we had to try and take a bite of the apple before our hair caught on fire from the candles. Happy days!

These days, my Halloween adventures are a lot tamer but I do like to mark it in some way. Although I’ve carved pumpkins I’ve never tried to make a turnip lamp, which is the Irish tradition. And honestly, the year of 2020 needs all the help it can get in warding off evil spirits. So if a turnip lamp can help in some small way, I’m all for it.

To carve a turnip, you need a few tools. Some sheets of newspaper, a small cutting board, a sharp knife, a strong spoon and a ballpoint pen. The slideshow below shows the process, but basically I chopped the head off my turnip, scored a criss-cross of lines in the ‘lid’, then used these lines to help scrape out the innards with the spoon. Same process for the rest of the turnip, augmented by cutting a slice off the end for a flat base. Eyes and mouth drawn for a face, carved out with the knife and spoon, skull cap back on top, add a candle and there he is – one creepy turnip head.

That one had been so successful that I had to give it another go. With a smaller rounder turnip.

The final touches were to add a hanging wire, and then my two turnip lamps were ready to scare away all the ghoulies and ghosties that might be wandering around our South Australian suburban street.

Once Halloween is over, I’m going to hang them in the shed and see how they look in a year’s time. Watch this space!

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2 Responses to Turnip carving? It must be Halloween

  1. cshowe says:

    Gorgeous ghoul lanterns! Had no idea about Ireland´s turnip-carving tradition, thank you for sharing. Here in Spain there´s a mix of visiting cemeteries (monitored by flying drones this year to ensure there was no over-crowding, very strange) colourful Mexican ritual altars and Castanyada (Catalan Autumn-welcoming) mostly about chestnuts and sweet potato…. but I´m very much outside looking in, don´t share any of these traditions (yet!)

  2. sarthure says:

    Hi Claire, I had no idea about the Spanish traditions! Was very happy with how my turnips turned out, they’re hanging in my study at the moment and getting a bit grimmer looking all the time. A nice hot Australian summer should dry them out nicely. Hope you’re staying safe and well in these Covid times.

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