Halloween is a time of tradition and I have two: reminiscing about my former homeland Belgium’s surly semi-capitulation to this unwelcome US import – an uncarved, often green squash dumped unceremoniously on the doorstep – and tirelessly talking up turnips.
Why is a swede (turnip for Scots – my heritage) lantern better than a pumpkin one? First, pumpkins – garish and slimy, the worst of vegetables but with peerless PR – are due a comeuppance. What other gourd is uppity enough to become a leisure activity in its own right? My local farm shop has pivoted entirely to “pumpkin patch” for the month, with costumed helpers and themed snacks: an incongruously wholesome way to contemplate our own mortality.
Swedes, in contrast, are innately terrifying. Even before carving, their natural skull shape means they look like a peat-preserved head you might excavate from a bog, unwittingly unleashing an ancestral curse. Clodagh Doyle, the keeper of terrifying carved roots (OK, the keeper of the folklife division) at the National Museum of Ireland, rightly describes the model of an early 20th-century turnip lantern in its collection as “pretty scary and awful”.
Second, unlike the too-conveniently hollow pumpkin, swede is one of the hardest substances known to humanity. I have treasured childhood memories of watching my stepfather, hunched over the kitchen table, grimly whittling the unyielding, adamantine mass with a small knife and a teaspoon – truly “the austere and lonely offices of love”, that. He claims there were “no pumpkins in York in the 1980s” but his eyes light up with masochistic pleasure at the memory; he also dismissed pumpkins as “contemptible” recently. Swedes are not for sissies: I have used multiple knives and nearly amputated a finger trying to carve the one I bought today (62p, bargain hunters) without making much of a dent.
But when the carving is finally complete, a candle illuminating the primitive face you have exhaustedly scratched into your fibrous enemy, you can enjoy the delicious smell of a job well done: acrid, scorched swede and blood, so much blood. Doesn’t that feel fitting? In conclusion, for a truly horrifying experience this Halloween, go swede-ish.