Turnip lanterns and ugly witches: the changing face of Halloween

Turnip lanterns <em>Picture: Paul Stainthorp</em>
Turnip lanterns Picture: Paul Stainthorp
By Betty Kirkpatrick

Once again Halloween is upon us, when witches and ghosts and cats and bats go from door to door, hoping for gifts of sweets or money. All this is very traditional, but some things have changed over the years.

Take the lantern, for example. A few decades ago the traditional Halloween lantern was a hollowed-out turnip, or neep in Scots, with a face carved on it and a candle placed inside it. The phrase “hollowed-out” sounds relatively effortless, but this is far from the case with regard to turnips, known in England as swedes.

I don’t know whether you have ever tried hollowing out a turnip, but the task is not for the faint-hearted or for the gentle-fingered. It is hard work and unsuited to anyone who lacks patience – and certainly unsuited to anyone who cares about the state of their hands.

The inside of a turnip is very hard and the word excavating, or better still the Scots howking out, is a much more appropriate description of the task than hollowing out.

No wonder then, in these days of speed and convenience, that the turnip has had to take a back seat when it comes to shedding light on Halloween. Our native vegetable has been usurped by an interloper, the pumpkin. This has undoubtedly made the making of Halloween lanterns much easier, since the flesh of the pumpkin is soft and easy to remove.

The pumpkin lantern has another advantage over the turnip lantern – although I am not sure if this was a factor in its takeover. It does not have the powerful and unpleasant smell that burnt turnip acquires as time goes by.

However, I personally prefer the turnip lantern. Perhaps this is partly because I faced the formidable task of making them for so many years and see no reason why others should not suffer as I did. But I also think that the turnip lantern looks more sinister and so more appropriate to the spirit of Halloween. The plump pumpkin can look altogether too jolly.

Other aspects of Halloween have also become less sinister-looking over the years. One of these relates to dressing up as a witch. Hitherto, the Halloween pretend-witch was meant to be a really ugly, scary creature with long black garments, a big hat and a broomstick. The black garments and the accessories remain, but attempts have been made to reduce the ugliness factor.

While staying more or less true to her roots, the Halloween would-be witch has frequently become glamorised. The flowing black garments are often now made of some flimsy material and shortened to at least knee level. Some are even trimmed with pink or other pastel colour.

This could be a result of the influence of Barbie and the like, but it could also be put down to the influence of commerce. Time was when children and parents raided the cupboards and put together home-made Halloween costumes. Some still do, but many more make their way to the relevant supermarket shelves or click on the internet.

This glamorisation of witches could also be something to do with the fact that more adults now seem to celebrate Halloween and dress up as witches and the like – although I think the practice is more common south of the border, where the American custom of Trick or Treat has become popular. It is certainly not the aim of adults with freshly made-up faces and expensively coiffed hair to look ugly and scary – hence the proliferation of glamorised witches.

It is not just at Halloween that the scariness has gone out of witches. When I was a child – which, admittedly, was a long time ago – I was absolutely terrified of witches, as many children were. I was haunted by a picture in a book depicting a Hansel and Gretel-style witch and was convinced that such a creature inhabited my wardrobe or the space under my bed. You may or not recall that a wicked ugly witch shut Hansel up in a cage to fatten him up with a view to eating him. Such was the image of witches then.

How things have changed. Now children’s fiction has several witches who present a benign, friendly image. Winnie the Witch, for example, may look quite scary, but she is presented as a well-meaning, harum-scarum creature with a good heart and a sense of fun. My witch was never like that.

Perhaps witches no longer cut it in the scary stakes because there are so many scary things around in children’s fiction and on DVDs, where terrifying monsters and aliens seem to abound. Maybe some of them will join the witches and ghosts and bats and cats in the quest for goodies on Halloween. Make sure you have stocked up with a plentiful supply of these.

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