Halloween pumpkin: a mixed history

As September rolls by, the traditional fall sightings slowly creep in — corn stalks adorning front steps, pumpkins piled up for purchase, gourds joining the produce section. By October, the orange, yellow and tan palettes of autumn are almost everywhere. Being a seasonal occurrence, not much thought is put into the “why” behind these characters of fall.

The pumpkin has a long history stemming from American Indian culture, mixing with Irish folklore and 19th century literature to become the modern American symbol of the Halloween season that it is today.

In America, the pumpkin was celebrated by the American Indian as an important vegetable within their culture and was most likely a part of the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Cindy Ott, an associate  professor of history and material culture at the University of Delaware and author of “Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon,” explains in her book that to Europeans, the American pumpkin was looked at as something from the New World, from a primitive place and rustic times.

In Europe, long before the pumpkin was popular as a food, it was used as metaphors in art and literature. When associated with women, it was connected with their bodies. When discussing men, pumpkins were often their head, and an indicator of an empty-headed man. This is shown in the classic of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” published in 1848.

In the book, Ichabod Crane is chased by a headless horseman and a head-like object is thrown at Crane, terrifying him so much that he runs away and is never heard from again. At the end, it is learned that nothing but a pumpkin was thrown at Crane, accentuating his silliness as an association with the pumpkin.

At about the same time of publication of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” pumpkins started appearing as jack-o-lanterns. But the history of these carve-faced vegetables dates back to 17th century Ireland. According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, turnips, potatoes and other root vegetables were carved and coals or candles were added to use as lanterns in the Gaelic celebration of Samhain, marking the end summer and harvest season, where people went from house-to-house in search of food or drink.

The “jack” of jack-o-lantern comes from the same time, but in the marshes of rural Ireland where the legend of Stingy Jack began to be told. The folklore said that Jack tricked the devil and was sentenced to roam for eternity with nothing but an ember.

In America, carved pumpkins didn’t occur until the 19th century where the name of jack-o-lantern originated from “will-o-the-whisps,” an unexplainable light emanating from a forest or swamp.

“Two gentlemen saw a globe of light or fire apparently twenty feet above the ground,” a newspaper account from October of 1830 said of will-o-the-whisps. “The light resembled a large lamp, was in constant motion, slowly traveling on a breeze.”

Adopting the name jack-o-lantern, the carved squash was once a symbol of the unknown forces that occupied wild spaces. One of the earliest accounts of a pumpkin as a jack-o-lantern was recorded in an 1846 newspaper when a boy took an unused pumpkin from a farmer and carved “the outline of three faces, with their eyes, and noses and teeth.”

Today, many, if not most, towns in America celebrate the pumpkin in some way. From pumpkin spiced lattes to pumpkin patches, trick-or-treating to haunted houses, the pumpkin, and its rich history, is a part of it all.

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