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


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