The turnip or pumpkin, Halloween tradition.

Archival Moment

October 28, 2015

Why a Jack O’Lantern?

Halloween TurnipIn Newfoundland and Labrador the humble turnip that was long associated with Halloween has been replaced by the pumpkin.

Today, folklorist and historians would argue that our Irish and Scottish ancestors carrying the traditions that they grew up with would have carried those same traditions to the new world. One such tradition would have been to carve a turnip during Halloween in keeping with the story of ‘Jack of the Lantern.’

As the Irish tale goes, a man called Stingy Jack, a lazy and shrewd blacksmith, invited the devil for a drink and a little gambling. During the evening Jack convinced the devil to change his form into a coin to pay his debts, if he should lose. The devil who off course never lost was quick to agree to change form. When the devil agreed, Stingy Jack decided he wanted the coin for other purposes, and kept the coin in his pocket beside a small, silver cross to prevent the devil from turning back into his old self.

When Jack died, God was not amused that Jack was playing with the temptations of the devil and refused to allow him into heaven. The devil, still furious with Jack wouldn’t allow him into hell. Jack was dispatched and was instead sent into the eternal night, with a burning coal inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. Poor Jack as a result has been roaming the earth ever since. In the Irish tradition this poor wandering soul is known as “Jack of the Lantern,” it has since become “Jack O’Lantern.”

With Jack of the Lantern wandering about our ancestors in in Ireland and Scotland began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips, placing them by their homes to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits and travelers.

When the Irish and Scots immigrated to North America, it was only natural that they should bring along the tradition of turnip carving during the Halloween season. In Newfoundland turnips were readily available and the turnip carving tradition continued for hundreds of years.

In the United States pumpkins were native and could be carved with much greater ease. The lowly turnip Jack-o-Lanterns have been gradually displaced with the pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns which have become an integral part of Halloween festivities ever since.

In some counties in Ireland there has been a movement to bring the lowly turnip back an uphill battle to displace the American pumpkin.

In Newfoundland the pumpkin is a relatively new addition, it was the glorious turnip that shone in the window of homes even into the 1970’s. The tradition of carving the pumpkin was likely originally introduced by American soldiers living on bases throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.

If Jack, who was sentenced to roam the earth for eternity, roaming about with a burning coal inside of a carved-out turnip, should come upon your home, it might be a good gesture to have your Jack O”Lantern cared from a turnip . Let him know that you remember the tradition of the turnip!

Recommended Archival Collection: Search the online database at The Rooms  for descriptions of our archival records and to view thousands of digital photographs. https://www.therooms.ca/collections-research/our-collections

Recommended Reading: The Dublin Penny Journal, July 1835. Page 229 – 231. ‘The Tradition of the Jack O’Lantern.’ Read More: https://books.google.ca/books?id=9gLSAAAAMAAJ&pg=RA1-PA230&dq=history+of+jack+o+lanterns&hl=en&sa=X&ei=qFtSVLSrIYflsATa2IHABw#v=onepage&q&f=false