Turnip Ghosts

There is a great quote from the prolific and eminently quotable British writer G. K Chesterton about ghosts–or really belief– in general which references turnip ghosts in particular: I am quite ready to believe that a number of ghosts were merely turnip ghosts, elaborately prepared to deceive the village idiot. This is from a column in the Illustrated London News in 1936: the assumption is that his audience would immediately understand the phrase “turnip ghost”, and as they were British, they probably did. An American audience would and does require some translation. A turnip ghost refers literally to a Jack o’lantern made out of a turnip (but I would also include turnip-headed scarecrows)–something out there in the fields that was not a real ghost but that could create fear–a bugaboo (the best word ever). Old World turnips predated New World pumpkins as the material of choice for All Hallows Eve Jack o’lanterns, and remained predominate for some time, both in the British Isles and on the Continent. And you can easily see why: turnips are scary.


Turnip Seed Packet Ghosted

Turnip Jack o’ lanterns from Work of Fiction (+directions); my own ghosted turnip seed packet.

The turnip-headed scarecrows are equally eerie: they turn up on Halloween postcards from the early twentieth century in both the United States and Europe, but are not exclusively tied to the holiday. Turnips just easily lend themselves towards anthropomorphic expressions.

Turnip Halloween Card

Turnip Head Howl's Moving Castle

Turnip Head Shakers

Vintage Halloween card, c. 1920; the Turnip-head scarecrow from  Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle; Vintage salt & pepper shakers available here.

I bought some turnips the other day–larger ones from a farm up north and smaller ones at our farmers market–with the intent to carve them into something scary, but I’m not sure I can do it–even with Martha Stewart’s assertive advice. They don’t have the soft insides of a pumpkin, and they are much more diminutive. I might chicken out and merely draw on them, because I’m not sure that I want to put in the time and effort: every single time I’ve carved out a pumpkin it has been stolen days before Halloween, and I’m sure my little turnip lanterns would be even more vulnerable!

Turnips 093

Martha Stewarts Turnips

My turnips and Martha’s creations: I might just settle for the turnips (and radishes) in a dish decoration, lower right. See a very scary traditional turnip Jack o’lantern here.

12 responses to “Turnip Ghosts

  • mariathermann

    You could always put them on the inside, on a windowsill perhaps? Halloween wasn’t a custom in Germany when I was still a child, but had it been, we’d have plenty of turnip heads to draw on and to mutilate, where I grew up! No pumpkins though, that’s a new “tradition” that came to Germany in the 1990s.

    • daseger

      I know; it’s really my own fault that my pumpkins get stolen! I always forget to bring them in when we get into the dangerous hours…..

      • mariathermann

        …all those long-fingered little ghouls clearly can’t resist the attraction of the turnip! I read yesterday how some regions in England used beets for their Jack O’Lanterns, now that must produce a wonderfully creepy red glow even my ghostly fingers wouldn’t be able to resist…

  • Piper B

    Thank you for this post and all your posts. Love the turnips. I don’t really ever reply, but want you to know I am out here and never miss a SOS post in my in box! I hope you are enjoying the season. Just my two cents: I feel the witch hunts were a black mark on our history. It’s sad that Salem has capitalized on the horrific murders of innocent women and men. Thank you for keeping us informed and well educated on the topic. Having said that, I do LOVE Halloween.

  • Roger

    It was usually swedes/neeps/orange turnips/rutabaga (though I’d never heard that name before) – there are a lot of names for them – rather than ordinary white turnips that were used for lanterns. They’re much larger – up to the size of a human head, where a large turnip is fist-sized – and have a hard outside which can be carved. They’re also the vegetable traditionally served with haggis on Burns’ Night.

    • daseger

      Oh thanks, Roger–I do think mine are too small to do anything with except maybe sconces; I found slightly larger ones up north, but nothing coming close to a human head!

  • Alys

    This post has prompted a long overdue note of appreciation. I discovered your blog about a year ago when I bought a vintage Swedish Easter postcard featuring witches. I had no idea about the Easter/witch connection, although both of my mother’s parents are of Swedish descent. Google search lead me to a couple of your posts on the subject; however, I subscribed to your blog because of your consistently interesting material and the intelligence of your research and writing. Tack så mycket!

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