Category Archives: Pumpkins

Turnip Lanterns and Singing Skeletons – Hallowe’en Then and Now

When I was a small child in Sunderland in the 1970s, there was only one accessory to have on Hallowe’en – a turnip lantern.

Back then in the north east, you seemed pretty sophisticated if you put mayonnaise on your salad instead of salad cream. Avocados were referred to as ‘avocado pears’ and considered to be objects of extraordinary exoticism.

So what did we know from pumpkins? Turnip lanterns were the thing.

Each year, my mum would carve out a turnip for me with an air of grim duty. This process required an amount of muscle power generally only required by removal men or lumberjacks.

When she was done, she’d attach a string handle to it and pop a candle inside. Then, accompanied by my dad, I’d carry the lantern off to the back garden to hunt for ghosts – the smell of burnt turnip drifting nauseatingly round our heads.

These days in north London, things are just a little bit different. The shops are crammed with every imaginable kind of Hallowe’en-themed tat. My ten-year-old got told off by the security guard in Tesco yesterday for activating the entire display of 50 singing skeletons simultaneously.

Hallowe’en is now a fantastic excuse for middle class oneupmanship. Each year, the pumpkins on the doorsteps round where I live are carved with ever more ornate images. Tonight, there were haunted houses and flying bats, witches on broomsticks and leering skulls.

Hedges were festooned with cobwebs, severed hands poke through letter boxes, spiders dangled menacingly from the doorways. On a nearby street, a pair of legs dangled out of a dustbin.

I’m not sure what carvings to expect next year: the shower scene from Psycho? A scale reproduction of Highgate Cemetery? Or perhaps there will be a pumpkin which hasn’t been carved at all. Its scariness will derive from the subversion of our expectations.

I feel I should claim that back in my Sunderland childhood, Hallowe’en was much better. We didn’t spend money; we didn’t gorge on sweets; we didn’t show off. I should point out that Hallowe’en is now utterly crass and overwhelmingly commercial: the true spirit of it has been lost.

In actual fact, turnip lanterns were really shit. Bring on the fancy pumpkins, the cheap Tesco costumes and the obscene quantities of sweets – that’s what I say.

I would love to hear about your Hallowe’en experiences – past or present. Please let me know in the comments section below.

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