30.10.2021
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Turnips instead of heads

How did vegetables become the main attribute of Halloween?

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Saints’ Day Eve, better known as Halloween, is celebrated on the night of October 31 to November 1 in many countries around the world. Originally a pagan Celtic end-of-summer holiday, it became part of popular culture in the late 19th century when it spread across America. In Russia Halloween came in the 90’s, and although according to surveys only 3% of Russians celebrate it, many people have heard of Halloween in one form or another and are familiar with the traditions that accompany the holiday. In October, specialized decorations appear in shops and themed movies are in theaters.

A mask made for Halloween (Source: museum.ie)
A mask made for Halloween (Source: museum.ie)

One of the symbols of Halloween is the so-called «Jack lanterns» – lanterns carved from a pumpkin that resemble heads with scary faces. According to Irish legend, where the tradition originated, Miserly Jack was able to trick the devil twice by taking his word not to claim his soul after his death. But when Jack died, Heaven refused to accept him, and the Devil, because of his grudge and the promise he made, kept him from Hell, sending Jack wandering the earth with a smoldering fire that he had put into a carved gourd.

Turnip lantern (Source: fatherly.com)
Turnip lantern (Source: fatherly.com)

The legend served not only as an educational tale, but also helped explain the «wandering lights», a rare natural phenomenon observed on marshes and cemeteries at night. The flickering light, produced by the inflammation of gases from decomposing organic matter, often led travelers astray – if they started to follow it, they might fall into the mire and drown. The inhabitants of the time believed it to be the work of Stingy Jack, a lost soul trapped between two worlds.

Wandering lights (Source: lensculture)
Wandering lights (Source: lensculture)

To ward off Jack and other evil spirits entering the land on Halloween night, people began carving their own lanterns, and more often used large turnips, potatoes, radishes and beetroot instead of pumpkins. «Metal lanterns were quite expensive, so people carved root vegetables, – explains Nathan Mannion, senior curator at the EPIC Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. – Over time, people began to carve faces and drawings so that light could pass through the holes without extinguishing the charcoal».

Although the tradition became widely known thanks to Halloween, Celts from northern Europe have been using round vegetables and fruit to represent human faces since pre-Christian times. There is speculation that this symbolized the severed heads of enemies appearing as spoils of war.

An exhibition of Halloween memorabilia at the National Museum of Ireland (Source: catholicphilly.com)
An exhibition of Halloween memorabilia at the National Museum of Ireland (Source: catholicphilly.com)

The carving of lanterns from root crops is only one aspect of the All Saints’ Eve celebrations which date back to ancient times, but many customs have been lost. Celtic priests built huge bonfires, practiced divination rituals and performed rites to keep evil spirits at bay – but because they kept no written records, little is known about these practices.

 

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