The pumpkin — valued by the Indians, savoured by the colonists, treasured by backwoods farmers, prized by cooks and chefs, and enjoyed by generations of Halloween pranksters. This Heritage Paper looks at this wonderful vegetable and how it became associated with the festival of Halloween so that now the two have become a New World tradition.
Botanists place pumpkins in a large family of plants called cucurbits, of which cucumbers, gherkins, squash, gourds, muskmelons and watermelons are also members. Pumpkins can be divided into two groups, the large orange-coloured stock, field or cow pumpkin, and the finer textured straw-coloured cheese or pie pumpkin. The large orange pumpkin was brought to a high degree of perfection by the Indians; the cheese or pie pumpkins are a result of controlled plant breeding.
It is believed that pumpkins were in America long before Columbus, possibly as early as five thousand years before Christ’s birth. Scientists have found no evidence to suggest that the vegetable was grown outside this continent before Columbus’s arrival, so with potatoes, tomatoes and corn, pumpkins and their various cousins can be regarded as true New World vegetables.
The Indians grew pumpkins in their cornfields, and the first settlers of the Plymouth settlement closely emulated the natives’ agricultural methods. From the Indians, who called pumpkins “pomions”, the colonists learned to plant pumpkins and squash to counteract the debilitating effects on the soil of growing corn year after year in the same field. Accounts of the first Thanksgiving feast do not mention pumpkin by name, but there is little doubt that they were part of the first harvest table.
For the early colonists, pumpkin was often the difference between survival and starvation. Although they disliked pumpkin, the colonists soon overcame their prejudice, and it became an almost daily staple for them in the New World. They came to describe pumpkin as the “fruit which the Lord fed his people with till corn and cattle increased”. A rhyme said to have been composed during the early years of the Plymouth County best describes its importance!
"For pottage and puddings, and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon."
The most common way for the settler to preserve pumpkin was by drying, a method learned from the Indians. The pumpkins were sliced and placed on racks in the sun or hung from cords suspended from beams or rafters in the ceiling until dried, and then stored in cotton bags for winter use in the same manner as other fruits and berries. This versatile vegetable was fed in the Fall to cattle and pigs, as well as being used in the preparation of a great variety of dishes — soup, bread, muffins, cakes, pies and tarts, cookies and puddings.
Pumpkins were also used to make a sugar substitute. Because in the early years cane sugar was expensive, maple sugar was used extensively, but when the year’s supply was exhausted, the settlers made “punkin sass” by boiling pumpkin juice for hours until it acquired the consistency of molasses. In New England, where the vegetable was soon so abundant, many of the settlers, whose Puritanism did not extend to teetotalism, invented a pumpkin beer, made with sugar and persimmons.
This wonderful vegetable has inspired storytellers, nursery rhymers, poets and philosophers. The fanciful tale of Cinderella’s coach, transformed from a pumpkin by the touch of a magic wand, is an American-inspired variation on a traditional European folk story. The pumpkin appears in the old nursery rhyme,
"Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,
Had a wife and couldn't keep her.
So he put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well."
And even today this love affair continues, as cartoonist Charles Schulz has made “The Great Pumpkin” into an annual folk symbol.
Perhaps it is in the form of the jack-o’-lanterns that boys and girls carve from hollowed-out pumpkin shells at Halloween that this orange vegetable is shown greatest affection and is most securely enshrined in American folklore and traditions. Strangely though, it is not New Englanders or Maritimers who fashioned the first lanterns out of vegetables for display on Halloween, but the Irish, Scotch and English. Scottish children traditionally looked for the largest turnips they could find at Halloween time. Then they hollowed them, carved faces on them and put candles inside. Called “bogies”, these lanterns were meant to scare witches away as the children ran from house to house. The English called their lanterns “punkies” and made them from large beets known as mangel-wurzels. As the children went from house to house, they sang songs and received gifts of coin or new candles.
There were no pumpkins in Ireland when the first lanterns with leering eyes and menacing smiles were created, but there were rutabagas, turnips and potatoes. The probable origin of the name jack-o’-lantern is almost certainly Irish, being based on the story of an Irishman named Jack who was so miserly that he was kept out of Heaven, but so mischievous that the Devil refused to admit him to Hell. So poor Jack was condemned to wander the earth with a lighted lantern until Judgment Day.
When large numbers of English, Scotch and Irish immigrants began to come to Canada and the United States in the middle of the 19th century, they brought with them the tradition of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween. But because of such harsh conditions, the festival was forgotten for many years until times became better, and then instead of potatoes or turnips, the children fashioned their Halloween lanterns from the great orange pumpkins that were so plentiful and ideal for carving.
Originally published in Heritage Happenings, October 1983.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1983, 2020