It’s the Great Turnip, Charlie Brown and Other Samhain Traditions

When you’re writing a time-travel novel, you’re constantly comparing the past to the present. Big surprise here–the present is almost always better. Let’s face it, no matter how cool you think it would be to live the life of a princess or a knight, you’d be living in a world without toilet paper. Cottonelle beats crumpled up leaves every time. Sorry, people.

But there are a few exceptions…


When it comes to Halloween, the Middle Ages wins, hands down. Of course, it wasn’t actually Halloween they celebrated. It was Samhain (pronounced Sowen), a celebration that you can think of as the Great Great Granddaddy of Halloween. It was one of four Gaelic seasonal holidays and marked the transition from summer to winter.


“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” 
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Dumbledore might not have been referring to Samhain in the above quote, but it is a perfect description of how people felt. Samhain was considered the “darkest of times” because it was thought to be the time when the door from the spirit world opened, letting in ghosts and fairies (Sidhe) and all kinds of other things that go bump in the night.

So how did they protect themselves from these otherworldly threats?

bonfireThey turned on the light, by which I mean they built a humongous bonfire. A Teine Eigin, or a forced fire made by rubbing wood together, was considered a powerful  form of purification and protection (and a good plague remedy). Once this “magical” fire was burning, they lit torches off it and marched the fire around town. Take that spirits! No home was safe without this magical security either. They dampened the hearth fire and relit it with the newer, better forced fire.

800px-Traditional_Irish_halloween_Jack-o'-lanternPeople also made jack o’ lanterns lit with burning embers from the fire. If you’re imagining carved pumpkins, think again. Pumpkins are native to North America. Our Samhain celebrators carved turnips. Yes, you read that right. Turnips.

But fire was not enough.

Nobody wanted to risk getting whisked away by a spirit. So the best practice was to blend in with the ghosts and ghoulies by “guising.” This could be done by wearing a grotesque mask or blackening the face with coal. Not as cute as my kids on Halloween:

IMG_0586                  IMG_1063

But way spookier…

Samhain is a family matter

800px-Hammersmith_GhostOf course one of the problems with dealing with spirits is they might be the souls of dead relatives. If you didn’t want to risk the wrath of your dear old dead aunt, there were a few more precautions you could take. You definitely wouldn’t want to sweep or dust, or you’d risk throwing away an ancestor’s soul. You would want to leave food (it’s only polite), but no open containers of water or the souls might drown.

Relatives get a little bit cranky when they’re dead, so it was best not to look them in the eye, talk to them, or engage them in any way when they came to visit. It was also a good idea to leave the doors and windows open so they could leave (sooner better than later) or else they might feel vengeful, and ghost vengeance is the worst.

The fun part

I don’t want you to think Samhain was all dodging dead relatives and rubbing sticks together for magic fire. It was also a lot of fun. It was the perfect time to play pranks on people. I mean, when else can you legitimately blame your misdeeds on a ghost? There were also feasts, games, and fortune-telling.

Fortune telling on Samhain almost always had to do with love. For the unmarried, there were plenty of ways to divine who your future spouse would be:

  1. Bobbing for apples (apple dooking)–Same as the modern tradition, only the first person you saw would be your future spouse.
  2. Throwing apple peels–Toss the peel over your left shoulder. Whatever letter the peel most resembles will be the first letter of the name of your future spouse.
  3. Pulling the green kale–You have to be sneaky for  this one. You sneak into a farmer’s field and pull the 1st kale stalk you see. If the stalk is healthy and straight, your future spouse will be handsome/beautiful. If it’s crooked, stunted, or has no dirt on the roots, you’re future spouse will be ugly and poor (sorry about your luck). If it’s sweet, your spouse will be sweet tempered. If it’s bitter, your spouse will be ill-tempered.
  4. Eating fuarag–Fuarag isn’t as scary as it sounds. It’s basically just oatmeal and cream. To divine your future, hide a button, a wedding ring, and a six-pence in the large bowl of fuarag. Grab your friends and start eating. Whoever finds the wedding ring will be first to wed. Whoever finds the six-pence will be rich. Whoever finds the button will never marry.
  5. Burning nuts–No, I’m not referring to venereal disease. This little bit of fortune-telling is for the newly engaged. You and your future spouse each write your name on a nut (hazel is best) and place them side-by-side in the fire. If they burn quietly, you’ll have a happy marriage. If they hiss and crackle, prepare yourself for a life-time of fights.

Sounds like a lot more fun than banging on the neighbors door and asking for candy in my opinion (though I would miss the peanut butter cups).

Turnip Carving:

To get in the Samhain spirit, I decided to carve some turnips. It’s a little bit trickier than carving pumpkins, so I’ll walk you through the process.

  1. Cut off the stalk end. Turnips don’t have flat bottoms, so this will be the end you put on the bottom.
  2. Hollow out the inside. I did this using a mellon baller, and it worked pretty well. The key is to use a twisting motion. I would say a turnip is close to a raw potato in terms of hardness, so it takes a bit of elbow grease, but is completely doable. Save those turnip guts and cook them for dinner.DSC_0093
  3. Draw your face with a pencil. This will leave a nice imprint of where to cut. Or don’t if you’re brave enough to free-style carve.DSC_0110
  4. Use a small pumpkin carving knife to cut out your design. The smaller the better. Turnips aren’t much bigger than a soft ball.DSC_0116
  5. Light them up–You can use a tea candle if you want, but it will start to cook your turnip. You can avoid this problem by buying electric tea lights. If you do go with traditional candles, and you find the flame won’t stay lit, puncture a few holes in the back of your turnip. These means there isn’t enough air circulating.DSC_0143
  6. Your turnip jack o’ lantern will last 3-5 days, depending on the weather. My plan is to freeze the ones I carved until Halloween night. I’ll let you know how that works out.

Happy Halloween!

*All pictures not my own are part of the public domain.


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