Original Jack O’Lantern

January 18, 2018

Carved Turnip
Jack O Lantern below was traditionally carved, c. 1903 National Museum of Ireland .

Last evening at the WSU Snohomish extension’s Growing groceries Kate, the hostess, gave us a fun fact about turnips. They were the original jack o’lanterns. The lecture was more about how turnips are apart of the Brassica or Mustard family originating in central Asia but is now common in all temperate regions.

But with a fun fact like that I had to find out the history of the turnip and it seems there are lots of fun facts associated with the turnip. Like how in Roman times turnips were thrown at disliked public figures, I bet bad comedians are happy we changed to tomatoes.

For most of history turnips are a food source for livestock. Which makes sense I’ve never really liked turnips, I think I had them mashed once and that was okay. There are a few times when feminine or war required people to eat them regularly but quickly fell out of fashion when the turmoil was over.

My favorite historical note about turnips is with crop rotation by Charles, Viscount Townshend. Where turnips were used in rotation with clover, barley, and wheat which allowed farmers to keep some livestock over the winter. This meant meat & cheese year round instead of only in November. Which according to authors at National Geographic was a precursor to the industrial revolution, since there was now enough food (organically) for people to work in cities.

Field Rotation
The Agricultural Revolution

But the main intrigue is that turnips were carved in Ireland and Scotland during Samhain, a Gaelic halloween. This was to ward off Jack. An Irish legend who tricked the devil twice and wasn’t allowed into Heaven or Hell thus forced to roam the earth with a carved turnip as a lantern. When the Irish migrated to America they found a native plant, the pumpkin, and found it much easier to carve.

Check out these links for more!

Irish Jack O’Lantern
Medieval Ireland
Huffington Post on Samhain Festival

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