Why You Should Carve Scary Beet & Turnip Jack O’Lantern For Halloween- Not Pumkins

Forget pumpkins, carve a Turnip Jack O’Lantern for Halloween just like the Irish, Scots and Brits used to before bright orange pumpkins became the norm.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
Why you should carve turnip jack o lanterns instead of pumpkins for halloween
Why you should carve turnip jack o lanterns instead of pumpkins for halloween

In remembrance of the original Jack O’lantern, which was NOT carved out of pumpkins, try something so old it’s new.

Carve a Turnip Jack O’Lantern for Halloween just like the Irish, Scots and Brits used to before bright orange pumpkins became the norm.

Or do as the French do in the Alsace Lorraine in the North Eastern part of France and carve a beet lantern. What about a potato O’lantern?

Getting to the root of it. Why carve a turnip Jack O’lantern?

A few years ago, I searched for a pumpkin patch near our house in southern France. Unfortunately, they were all too far, mainly located just outside of Paris.

As usual, I got sucked into the internet rabbit hole and came upon some interesting facts about the tradition of carving pumpkin Jack O’lanterns that was so different, so new to me; I didn’t believe it when I first read it.

Origina Irish Jack O'lantern** photo-icon.50xpngPhoto source: Irish turnip (rutabaga) lantern on display in Ireland at the National Museum of Ireland- Country Life.

The original Jack-O-Lantern

The original European Jack-O-lanterns- named for the Irish myth, were carved mainly from turnips and other roots such as rutabagas, potatoes or beets and looked truly grotesque and monstrous compared to today’s festive or goofy carved orange pumpkins.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s, when Irish and Scottish immigrants brought their custom of carving lanterns out of roots to North America, that the tradition changed.

The newly arrived immigrants discovered North American orange pumpkins were perfect for carving. So began the new custom of carving orange pumpkins, which is now popular throughout the world, not just in North America.

I decided to give turnip carving a go and created several turnips Jack O’lanterns this Halloween with my daughter. Of course, we also carved a pumpkin and made pumpkin seeds.

If you haven’t already read these, you might be interested in: 

10 things you didn’t know about Halloween in France

How adults and children can celebrate Halloween in France

Photo of turnip Jack O'lantern we carved for Halloween and used as little candle holders.

photo source (annieandre.com)

English Heritage wants you to use turnips due to a possible pumpkin shortage.

Man carving a turnip jack o'lanternphoto-icon.50xpngPhoto source of English Heritage turnip carver and carved turnips

There have been several attempts to revive this almost forgotten tradition of carving turnip Jack O’lanterns.

In 2015, a pumpkin shortage led to the English Heritage calling for Brits to rediscover and bring back the original tradition of turnip carving to address reduced supplies of pumpkins caused by wet weather.

The English Heritage even installed several ghoulishly carved turnips at Dover Castle to inspire people, but I don’t think it’s caught on yet, but time will tell.

9 Advantages of carving  turnip Jack O’lanterns

I didn’t have a lot of faith in carving turnip Jack O’lanterns. I thought they would be more difficult than carving a pumpkin because I kept reading how the Irish and Scots found pumpkins easy to carve.

To my surprise, it was just as easy, if not easier, to carve a turnip. In 15 minutes, my daughter and I had carved several adorably grotesque-looking turnip Jack O’lanterns. Something you can’t do with a pumpkin because you have to first gut the pumpkin and then slowly work your knife through the thick skin of the pumpkin to carve it. Both can be very time-consuming.

  1. No scooping out messy seeds, no big pumpkin mess
  2. Turnips are smaller and more portable than pumpkins, so you can easily use them as Jack O’lanterns or hang them from a tree outside.
  3. Turnips are also cheaper, so you can afford to make dozens of carved turnips to display around the house, on your windowsills or outside.
  4. You can let your kids do much of the work because turnips are easier to gut than a giant, hard pumpkin.
  5. With its reddish-white exterior and root-like characteristics, turnips look more interesting than a carved pumpkin. Maybe scarier?
  6. Candles tend to flicker more in a turnip because they are less protected than in a pumpkin, which makes the turnip look spookier. But the candle tends to get blown out more easily as a result. (not a positive)
  7. Unlike pumpkins, turnips and many other roots are relatively easy to find almost everywhere all year round, even in France.
  8. No waste! After you scoop out the turnips’ innards, you can use the guts to make yummy mashed turnips.
  9. You can carve turnips and roots all year round into different things like votive holders, unlike pumpkins, which only look appropriate during Halloween. (see photos below)

Tools you need to carve root or turnip Jack O’lanterns.

tools to carve a root or turnip jack o lantern

how to carve and scoop out guts of a turnip to make a jack o'lantern

photo-icon.50xpng Photo source: Diane Gilleland via Makezine.

  1. A knife to cut off the top
  2. Something to scoop out the guts- a melon ball scoop works way better than a spoon. The edges of a melon ball are sharper.
  3. A smaller blade to carve the details of your scary face onto the turnip.
  4. A poking tool might come in handy if you want to poke small holes into the sides of the turnip and run a string through the holes so you can hang the turnip from a tree or something.

Turnip and root carving inspiration

When it comes time to carve your terrifying turnip, you’re limited only by your imagination. Here are a few photos to wet your inspiration.

English-heritage-turnips jack o lanterns

photo-icon.50xpngPhoto source of English Heritage carved turnips.

Hang a bunch of turnip Jack O’lanterns in the yard

turnip- jack o'lanterns by Martha Stewart

Turnips don’t weigh much, so you can easily hang them from a tree in the backyard or your front doorstep. Carry them on your trick or treats, too.

Carve a rutabaga


Photo source Munchies. vice

In addition to turnips, you can carve rutabagas into Jack O’Lanterns, which look even scarier than carved turnips with their brown skin and extruding roots that remind me of mole hairs.

carved-rutabaga for halloween

photo-icon.50xpngphoto source = The invisible underground

Make a simple turnip votive for any time of the year.

turnip votive from martha stewart

photo-icon.50xpngPhoto source: Martha Stewart

For a more elegant turnip that you can use all year round, turn that turnip into a tea light holder to put on the dinner table or coffee table. Martha Stewart says to use varying sizes for the most interesting display and not leave lit candles unattended. DUH!


Photo source = Lovely Greens

Head over to Lovely Greens to learn how to make these cute carved turnip lanterns.

Carve other roots like potatoes

carve-potato Jack O'Lantern

photo-icon.50xpngPhoto source = Odyssey

If you can’t get your hands on any turnips or want to try carving other roots and vegetables like the Irish, Scots and English, walk into your kitchen and look in your vegetable drawer. Pull out a potato, beet, butternut squash or rutabaga and start carving away.

The Sugar Beet Lantern carving customs in Northern France

boulonnais-betterave Jack O'lanterns

photo-icon.50xpngphoto source= Ville deLongvilliers

As I mentioned in this article, the French hate Halloween and how to celebrate it anyway. The French don’t really celebrate Halloween, so carving pumpkins isn’t that popular either.

However, in the North of France, in Alsace Lorrain, there’s the tradition of carving grimacing sugar beets on October 31st for the night of the grimacing beets. 

Grimacing Beets of Lorraine “les Betteraves Grimaçantes.”

carved-betrave Jack o'lantern

photo source: B@ch’ Boetz

The children of Lorraine, a historic region in northeast France that borders Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, have a tradition of carving grimacing beet lanterns, “les Betteraves Grimaçantes.”

A small candle is placed in the carved sugar beet lantern and placed on windowsills on the eve of Toussaint (All Saints Day) on November 1st, which happens to be Halloween. This special night is called “Nuit des betteraves grimaçantes” in French or “Rommelbootzen” in German, which translates to “The night of the grimacing beets.”

poster for the festival of la-nuit-de-betterave

photo-icon.50xpngphoto source = Blog d’air

Decorated Beets of Boulonnais during Christmas

poster of the festival in guenel

Boulonnais, a coastal area in northern France near Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, has a carved beet lantern festival called “la fête des guénels.”

A Guénels is a carved beet lantern and is the middle aged phonetic spelling for the word Gai Noel.

guenel festival in Northern France kids holding carved beet jack O'lanterns

Photo source of kids at Christmas with carved beets.

The custom of beet carving in this region is centred around the story of Petit Pierre.

There are several versions of this story, but the gist of the folklore is that Petit Pierre, an impoverished boy, wanted to make some money for Christmas. So, on the eve of Christmas, he carved a face into a beet and placed a candle in it to use as a lantern to illuminate the night so he could go door to door asking the bourgeois boulonnais for money. (sounds similar to Halloween, doesn’t it?)

Free beets for everyone

Although it sounds a lot like Halloween and trick-or-treating and perhaps is related to the Celtic tradition, it is celebrated for Christmas but only in the Boulonnais area of France, which has its own unique customs and traditions.

The municipality of Boulogne drops truckloads of large beets in the street, which the Kids can then go around collecting, which they will then carve and use to go door to door asking for treats while singing the traditional song called « Ô Guénel.»

Photo of kids showing off their carved beets for the beet carving competition in France

photo source “of kids in beet carving competition.”

There is also a festival of carved beets called  “la fête des guénels” with a beet carving contest. After the contest, children parade in the streets “défilé des guénels,” asking passer-byers for sweets «les sucreries» while again singing the traditional song called « Ô Guénel.»

Happy root carving. Consider sharing this pin on Pinterest.

pinterest image why you should carve turnip & beet Jack O'lanterns instead of pumpkin for Halloween

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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