How to Easily Carve a Turnip Jack-o-Lantern
How to easily hollow out and carve a turnip jack-o-lantern. These traditional Halloween lanterns pre-date pumpkin carving and can have an even scarier effect
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Long before people carved pumpkins for Halloween, they carved turnip jack-o-lanterns. Terrifying little moots that often resembled shrunken heads! If you’d like to try something a little different this year, follow in the footsteps of Celtic people across Britain. Opt out of a pumpkin and make yourself a smaller somewhat more terrifying turnip jack-o-lantern.
All you’ll need for this Halloween project are large turnips, a knife, a spoon or chisel, and an electric drill. If you don’t have an electric drill, you can use the more traditional method of hollowing out turnips with a metal spoon. It takes more time but could get you in the festive mood with a bit more pain and potentially a few drops of blood. Doesn’t sound fun? Then use this easier way to carve a turnip jack-o-lantern!
Moots are Scarier than Pumpkins
On the Isle of Man, the 31st of October isn’t Hallowe’en, it’s Hop tu Naa. In other parts of Celtic Britain, it’s called Samhain, Nos Galan Gaeaf, and Allantide. Instead of celebrating a day for the dead, it’s the Celtic new years eve and has been around long before the modern holiday. Even though the holidays are different they are related and have strong similarities. Children dress up, sing, and play pranks, and there’s definitely a spooky feeling. There are differences though and in the Celtic tradition, you carve turnips rather than pumpkins.
Even if you plan on carving a pumpkin this year, you should consider carving a turnip too. They have a long history and can be even creepier than a pumpkin. All of the turnip’s nooks and wrinkles can be used to create zombie-like faces and their color is reminiscent of zombie skin too!
Source Your Turnips
The first thing you’ll need to get is turnips. You’ll need the larger type that is known by various names: swede, swedish turnip, rutabaga, turnip, moot. They’re commonly grown across the northern hemisphere and are sometimes easy to find at supermarkets. If not, try your farmers’ market or consider growing them in the garden next year. They’re almost effortless to grow if your summers are mild.
Hollowing out Turnips for Turnip Jack-o-Lanterns
Begin making a turnip jack-o-lantern by cutting off the top of the turnip. It should be at least half an inch below the stem and wide enough that you can get in easily to carve the inner flesh out. Though you can cut it at a level angle, if you wish, you’ll have more area to carve if you make an angled cut away from the side that you want your design to appear.
Now comes the difficult bit. The only trouble with turnip jack-o-lanterns is the effort it takes to hollow them out. Most people chip away at the centers with spoons and it can take a very long time. People often fondly remember back to ruining their hands by whittling the hard flesh of turnips out with blunt spoons. I’ve done it before and let me tell you, it’s not the best part of making a turnip jack-o-lantern.
This year we decided to be a little more clever and got the drill out. It made short work of the job and it only took me six minutes to hollow my first one out. The key piece of kit that we used was spade bits that attach to an electric drill. They come in different sizes and as you can see in the video (further below) I began with a larger size and swapped for a smaller one for around the edges.
Cleaning & Carving the Turnip Jack-o-lantern
Once you’ve made as many drilled holes as possible, it’s easy to chip away the remains using a spoon or wood chisel. I highly recommend the wood chisel since I also used it to smooth the inner walls of the lantern. After it’s hollowed, carving the design is very similar to carving a pumpkin. Draw your design with a pencil and then cut it partially or all the way out with a kitchen knife. If you cut away just a little of the flesh in the design, rather than removing all of it, then the inner flesh will glow orange when lit. Pop a tea light inside and your moot is ready to thrill! See the entire process in the video below.
I started carving turnips last year and used a melon baller for the smaller ones and an ice cream scoop for larger ones. They are so fast and easy! It took my less than five minutes to scoop out and carve my very first one.
Oiche Samhain its called.
They have carved turnips in museums from celtic Ireland.
It’s an old Celtic tradition so that’s completely unsurprising! Thanks Eoin :)
Thank you for showing this alternative to pumpkin carving! You have answered a curiosity that I have every hallowe’en! When I was little my mum used to make jack o lanterns from Turnip (swede to me) she is from Scotland but lived in England so I did not know if anyone else who made these from Swede. I used to think I had imagined this as how on earth would my mum of been able to dig out and create a scary face on such a hard vegetable? This was in the 1960’s so doubt a drill would of been available back then! Thanks for sharing and jogging my memories of good times
She’d probably have been taught the old-fashioned way — with a blunt ole spoon! Really pleased to have helped you understand your mother’s heritage :)
Love that you used power tools for this, Tanya – a woman after my own heart!! I was also wondering what you did with all the flesh that you hollowed out? I hope you’ll come back with a recipe for turnip mash or pie! (or cake, maybe?) Caro x
It’s in the fridge but will be going into some Rotmos tonight :) That’s just a mash made with potatoes, swede, and parsnips. And thumbs up for braving power tools as well. I’ve met too many women who won’t even give them a chance. Once that fear is overcome you can make anything!