How to Carve Turnips into Jack-o-Lanterns: A Samhain Tutorial

Our turnips for Samhain this year!  Photo by Weretoad, 2012.

Carved pumpkins are a ubiquitous tradition here in America.  It’s no wonder really – pumpkins have been growing here for generations!  In Ireland, turnips were mostly used as Samhain decorations.  There’s not a lot of evidence that this is an ancient practice.  Writings on the subject of ancient Samhain in general are actually surprisingly scarce.  Much of what we know is based on Medieval manuscripts, the modern Catholic festival of All Hallows Eve, and conjecture.  There are several theories about the purpose of the Jack-o-Lantern.  Much of it seems to revolve around protecting a home from the more nasty spirits that are wandering this realm – both fairies, a goblin-like creature called the Puca, and violent, angry dead.  Mara Freeman suggest it may have something to do with “the early Celts’ veneration of the head, which they considered the seat of the soul” (312).  This tradition came to America thanks to the Irish immigrants who, despite moving to a new land, could not give up their favorite holiday customs.  (It’s actually quite amazing how much of an impact Irish immigrants have had on America!)  Turnips were, of course, set aside for the pumpkin.  In reality, it’s much easier to carve a pumpkin than a turnip.  What’s more, they grow to large sizes so designs can become quite complex and visible from far away!

Although Weretoad and I continue to carve pumpkins each year, turnips entered our tradition a few Samhains ago.  It was important to me to try my hand at this traditional practice and recall the old customs of my Irish ancestors.    I encourage my readers to give it a try as well!

Choose some large turnips that sit on a flat surface.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.
Turnips are tough root vegetables so you’ll need a sharp knife to cut the top off.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.


The trickiest part by far is scooping out the insides.  Indeed, the density of turnips is what keeps most people from attempting this at all!  Although the vegetable matter is tougher than a pumpkin, carving a turnip only requires a little extra elbow grease.  The easiest way to do it is to use a sturdy, thick spoon that has no danger of bending.  Scoop it out bit by bit!  Photo by Weretoad, 2012.
Don’t forget to scoop some of the lid.  Even large turnips are still small compared to most pumpkins.  A tea light can quickly burn the turnip lid so you want to try your best to prevent that.  Also note the tub in the background.  Not wanting to be wasteful, we kept the turnip guts to add to a dinner.  They mix well with mashed potatoes.

Finally, use a small but sharp knife to carve a face or other design into your turnip.  I’ve found that traditional skull designs work well.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2012.


Each one has its own personality!  Photo by Weretoad, 2012.

As always, don’t leave your turnip lanterns unattended unless sing LED lights.  Once more, due to their small size, these turnips can cook from the inside!  I find they work best lit for small periods of time – during your Samhain ritual or dinner, for example.   Happy carving!


Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  Harper Collins, San Francisco: 2001.

Hutton, Ronald.  The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.  Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1996.


Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

2 thoughts on “How to Carve Turnips into Jack-o-Lanterns: A Samhain Tutorial

  1. I have wanted to try carving turnips for a long time – just never have. Thank you for the tips! I think I’ll pick up a few turnips this afternoon 🙂

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