This week thousands of people, young and old, will be carving a pumpkin for Halloween. Lit with a candle or a light bulb, the bland surface of the pumpkin will be converted into a figure of absolute horror—or a friendly face—that will be the star of the show on Halloween, the evening of October 31st. But where does this curious tradition come from?
It turns out it’s a fusion of New World and Old Word customs that lead to carving of pumpkins for Halloween. Read on to learn more!
Origins in the New World
The classic pumpkin is a type of squash (Cucurbita pepo). It has been cultivated for a long time, with seeds of C. pepo starting to appear in archeological sites about 10,000 BCE and we can assume it was therefore being at least harvested by that time, if not yet cultivated. As squash did become cultivated, all sorts of varieties were developed, with large or small fruit, smooth or rough skin, as small as a golf ball or as large as a small car, round, oblong, curved or irregular, and unicolored, marbled or striped in a wide range of colors. Traditionally, the term pumpkin (from the Greek pepon for “large melon,” later “pompion” in French) referred to fairly large rounded squash, usually orange, although these days white pumpkins are not uncommon and even turquoise ones can be seen.
Growing squash spread throughout the Americas, to the point that, when the first Europeans arrived, squash were being grown just about everywhere they were able to grow. When French explorer Jacques Cartier visited what was to become Quebec City for the first time in 1535, for example, he found the fields of the region filled with “pompions.” It was, however, the Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (yes, you translated that correctly: his family name does indeed mean “cow face!”) who saw squash in Florida in 1528 and brought the first seeds back to Europe.
Squash of all kinds quickly became popular in the Old World, but pumpkins especially caught on in China and Hungary, where they’re still grown on a large scale. However, they’re generally used as fruits or vegetables, not as sculptures.
The pumpkin is a creeping plant and will even climb if there is a very strong support it can cling to. It’s an annual, sown in the spring when the soil has warmed up. All summer it produces orange male and female flowers (hint: the female flower is easily distinguished from the male, because it already has a small pumpkin-shaped ovary at its base). The fruits grow quickly and it’s not uncommon to find pumpkins weighing over 100 lbs/50 kg!
The pumpkin is considered a “winter squash”: that is, the fruit is eaten at full maturity, not when it is small and still seedless, as with summer squash like zucchinis. Pumpkins are harvested in the fall, usually in October. In other words, just in time for Halloween.
The pumpkin’s thick flesh is edible and notably used in soups and pies, although “pumpkin pie” is often prepared from other winter squashes and not always true pumpkins. The seed too are edible. A ripe pumpkin will keep for several months in a root cellar. Canned, they’re available all year long.
Vegetable Carving: an Irish Tradition
At first, there was no connection between Halloween and pumpkins … until Irish immigrants brought a very curious tradition with them to the New World.
They used to carve turnips into lanterns to protect their crops (and their homes) at fall harvest. Illuminated with a candle, these scary carved lanterns (jack-o’-lanterns) were supposed to ward off evil spirits who could spoil crops, make people ill or bring bad luck. And they were supposed to come out and wander the earth on “All Hallows Evening” (Halloween), that is, the night before All Saints’ Day … unless a few brightly lit carved turnips scared them away.
However, pumpkins are much easier to carve than turnips and, in the New World at least, quickly replaced the turnip as the ideal vegetable for carving. However, it was not until 1866 that the first reports associating carved pumpkins with Halloween were recorded. The tradition spread throughout the United States and Canada. In French Canada, the tradition is much more recent, dating only to the end of the 20th century. In Europe, where people are only just discovering North American Halloween traditions, carving pumpkins is still seen as something new and exotic.
Save Your Seeds
When sculpting your pumpkin this week, remember not to eat all the seeds, but to store a few for next year. Just clean and rinse them carefully, dry them in the sun for a few days and store until spring. Then you’ll be able to grow your own pumpkins for next year’s Halloween!