Halloween: It’s Not Just for Pumpkins

Recent design trends in Halloween pumpkin carving fly in the face of tradition.  The purpose of the  lantern is to frighten away the mischievous spirits that will walk abroad on the night of October 31st.  While a carving of Jack Nicholson in The Shining ought to send them packing, pumpkins decorated with unicorn heads, frilly butterfly wings, or girls with ponytails left on the steps of suburban houses are not going to lower malevolent holiday spirit.  Substituting for the shapely pumpkin a gnarly turnip — the original vegetable for Halloween lantern-making — is an easy way of reinvigorating a dark and frightening night that has become increasingly commercialized and commodified.

Cutting out a chamber in a turnip for the candle to be placed into does take more effort than scooping out the soft, sticky mass of pumpkin seeds, but a rough-hewn lantern, like this old Irish jack o-lantern, can be surprisingly unnerving. A fine array of ghoulish lanterns carved from turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, and other hard, roundish root vegetables have been set outside to startle the cat when he emerges from the door.  This chilly, windy Halloween scene comes from Graham Oakley’s The Diary of a Church Mouse (New York: Atheneum, 1987), one in the series of adventures about the unlikely truce between the cat Sampson and the mob of mice he is supposed to patrol in a small, but fine British church..