How I Love Pumpkins! A Brief History

Abbey Road, Mr Spock, castles, the headless horseman, gargoyles, cats, owls, teeth and not forgetting my blog. All of these are things I have seen carved into pumpkins this year. Brilliant, every one of them.

I love pumpkins. The roundness, the orangeness, the chunkiness. Unfortunately, as I live in Britain, there are not too many pumpkin meals commonly eaten here with the exception of pumpkin seeds (admittedly a snack rather than a meal). I do envy the Americans with their pumpkin pie even though I have no idea what it tastes like. I just love the idea of it. I suppose I should try to make one myself but I never can muster the courage to do it.

Pumpkins are not naturally English creatures being native to North America. The earliest evidence of them is from seeds found in Mexico dating back to about 7,000 BC. In days gone by the English (Anglo-Saxons and Celts) have used turnips, hollowed out to make the lanterns to guide the spirits of the dead back to their beds (graves) and to ward off evil spirits. Turnips are not very big and in time people changed to using swedes, which are much bigger. Then along came the pumpkin when the connection was made between Briatin and America. It’s easy to see why pumpkins took over from swedes.

Folklore abounds with the pumpkin. In Cinderella the luxurious coach turns into a pumpkin after midnight. Then, from Ireland, the story of Stingy Jack. He was some good-for-nothing who tricked the devil one too many times before he died. After being rejected by both the heaven and the devil, poor Jack had nowhere to go. So he spent his time roaming around with little more than a hollowed out turnip with coal from hell to light his way. After that story got around, Jack O’ Lanterns were carved and left on doorsteps, to ward off Old Jack and any other evil spirits. An alternative tale was from East Anglia from the seventeenth century called Will-o’-the-wisp, which translates as ‘Will of the torch’.

The history aspect is that carved out vegetables have been used as lanterns for a very, very long time. They were particularly important around this time of year as it was known as Samhain: the end of the harvest and the beginning of the new dark half of the year.

There is a knock on the door. I will take my scary faced pumpkin lantern to light my way. And frighten the little blighters half to death…

(c) A.J. Sefton

Night and Day: How Time was Marked in the Dark Ages

When the clocks go back at this time year in Britain, we are pleased to get an extra hour in bed at the weekend. However, the clocks confuse us and confuse the cat at feeding time, so not so good. Then we get all het up about whether it ‘really’ is later or earlier than we think.

And we have all the science to help us keep track. How did the people in the Dark Ages cope?

Early Anglo-Saxon sundials show only four evenly spaced marks for telling time during daylight. These four divisions of daylight are paralleled by four at night.

They are:

úht (3 am to 6 am)

morgen (6 am to 9 am)

undern (9 am to noon)

middæg (noon to 3 pm)​

gelotendæg (3 pm to 6 pm) ​

æfen (6 pm to 9 pm)​

niht (9 pm to midnight)

midniht (midnight to 3 am)

Modern usage of the words ‘morning’ and ‘evening’ originated from this period. However, we can recognise a few other terms such as ‘midnight’ and ‘midday’, too, from their Germanic roots.

So there you go. Goodnight.

(c) 2015 A.J. Sefton

What Children can Learn from the Battle of Trafalgar

21 October is the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when the British Navy defeated the combined French and Spanish Navies. It was a battle fought within the Napoleonic Wars that took place from 1803 to 1815. Of course, being a History teacher I would know that, wouldn’t I?

Then again – why would a History teacher need to know everything that ever happened? For one thing, our brains just can’t hold all that information and second, we do not teach this battle, nor the Napoleonic Wars, to mainstream classes. Perhaps at Advanced Level but certainly not for the younger children. Why is that? It was a battle that demonstrated the naval supremacy of the British led by Admiral Lord Nelson, who displayed his strategic skills in going against orthodox tactics to gain victory. Lord Nelson’s statue stands atop his own column within Trafalgar Square in London. His ship, HMS Victory, is now docked in Portsmouth and serves as a tourist attraction and reminder of how Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain was thwarted. Art has captured the battle and his deathbed, the BeeGees and even Star Trek have found inspiration in the Battle of Trafalgar and Lord Nelson.

So why are children prevented from learning about such a landmark event in their History?

The same reason why this current generation thinks that Churchill is that nodding dog from the car insurance advert.  Great wartime leaders, especially British ones, are seen from those above (by this I mean government education bodies) as a little bit embarrassing. As a nation we do not condone violence or celebrating it. Well, I’m certainly in favour of that. Despite the fact that I constantly write about battles and warriors, I do not like violence.

However, I do not like going to the dentist or hospital either. But sometimes we have to indulge in unpleasant or painful things in order to get better. I consider myself a pacifist – yes, really – but in all of these cases we have to look at the consequences. If I refused to get that tooth filled it may have led to infection, abscesses, erosion of my jawbone and even death.  Pharaoh Rameses II died of a tooth abscess. So if Sir Winston Churchill did not declare war against Hitler and Germany and Nelson did not win against Napoleon we could be speaking a different language by now. Both of these men fancied world domination and Britain stopped them.

Of course we don’t want our children thinking that Britain is some kind of supreme nation as in the days of the British Empire. What we need to teach them is that we have to stand up to tyrants and bullies. Children can identify with that and understand that it is not an easy thing to do.

Having said all that, I am now trying to forget Admiral Lord Nelson and HMS Victory as I prepare for my cruise to Italy and the splendours of Rome and Florence.


What was Meaty About October in the Dark Ages

autumn leaves new_0

October is my favourite month. It has a ripe fruitfulness no other month has. The smell of the turning leaves is intoxicating; the conkers on the ground are heart-warming; the autumnal sun at its most golden and the Hunters’ Moon is the sign that winter is about to arrive.

In Anglo-Saxon times October was known as Winterfilleth, a name made from ‘winter’ and ‘full moon‘ indicating the end of autumn and the start of  hard times ahead. As soon as the full moon appeared, winter had arrived.

The full moon in October was known as the Hunters’ Moon. As the harvest was usually over (or just about save for the nuts) the Dark Ages folk spent their days hunting and hawking as there were no more crops left to tend. At this time meat was important. A lot of vegetables would not last the winter but meat could be dried and salted so a good supply was essential to ensure survival for everyone.

Large herds of deer roamed the Anglo-Saxon landscape, as well as boar. For those who had the skills to hunt these animals, their larders would be full enough to see them and their families through the dark days. However, hunting boar was difficult as they were intelligent and aggressive creatures. Still are, I suppose, although they were hunted to extinction a few hundred years after the Dark Ages, in the thirteenth century. Hunting boar and deer became a sport that involved the skilful use of weapons such as the spear and bow. The hunts numbered many men and horses and deaths were frequent, especially during the boar hunt.

Hawking was definitely a sport for the nobles. Falcons, hawks and eagles (for royalty) caught smaller birds for the rich man’s pot. There was an active trade in birds of prey, too. Vikings captured and trained these birds in Scandinavia and sold them on to the British aristocracy and the royal house throughout northern Europe.

The next month, November, was known as Blood Month according to Bede. This was because the Anglo-Saxon peoples sacrificed their livestock. The chances of them making it through the winter were low because the folk needed any vegetation for themselves. So the logical thing would be to slaughter the beasts (sheep, pigs, goats and cattle) and dedicate them to the gods for safe measure. Could only work in their favour after all. Then the meat would be dried or salted and consumed throughout winter.

No doubt some of it was saved for the Yuletide celebrations at the time of the solstice. But that’s another story.

The Moon in the Dark Ages


I’m glad there is such  a thing as a full moon. Every four weeks, when I stagger out of bed at some ridiculous hour, I can find my way around by the light of the moon. Good or what? Well, as long as it isn’t cloudy.

For many cultures the moon was more than a light. It was a constant in the night sky that changed with the length of day and the seasons. Ruled by gods and linked to supernatural powers and magic, the moon was a very special astral body.

The Anglo-Saxons had names for the moons at different times of the year. These names gave the month its particular characteristic linked to the season.