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Pumpkins at Hallow'e'en: why a pumpkin?

  • Pumpkins at Hallow'e'en: why a pumpkin?

Ever wondered why we cut big toothy grins in hollowed-out orange pumpkins?

It goes right back to pagan times, pre-dating the birth of Christ: there was a Celtic tradition that on the day of the dead, at the end of October, all fires in the village should be extinguished, then re-lit by a priest, who went around from house to house.

Remember that these were the days before lighters and matches were invented, so letting the fire go out was a big thing for them: it would mean having to find some suitable dry tinder, then to find the correct rocks to strike sparks, and having tried fire-lighting by this method, I assure you that it can take quite some time, and a fair amount of effort.

In addition, fire might have been their only light, as candles were not generally common in Europe until the Middle Ages: so to let the fire go out after dark would leave them quite literally in pitch blackness, making it all the harder to relight the fire.

The symbolism of the priest bringing the fire back into the houses was presumably to make them grateful to their gods and their representatives on earth, who would bring the glowing embers which would re-kindle their fires.

And how, exactly, did he carry these glowing embers?

Answer: inside a hollowed-out parsnip. Parsnip? Yes, a parsnip. Or a carrot. At that time, by the way, carrots were mostly white, like parsnips. Orange carrots were not popular until the seventeenth century, when they were bred to produce the familiar bright orange, in honour of Dutch nobility, William of Orange: and they've been orange ever since. But back in Celtic times, they were mostly white, and in fact these two root vegetables were often used interchangeably.

But getting back to our parsnip - a good big, tough old parsnip was just the thing for carrying embers, and the tradition of using one to carry embers all round the village at the “end” of the year continued through the centuries, although over time it lost the original meaning: householders no longer extinguished their own fires, and it was no longer a priest who carried it, but was more likely to be a village elder.

Then came the exodus to the new world, and the Pilgrims took this tradition to America, where they quickly found that there was a splendid new vegetable out there, which was perfect for hollowing and carrying glowing embers: yes, the pumpkin. And with the over-the-top enthusiasm which marks everything that Americans do, it grew from being a humble ember-holder into being a decorative lantern, embellished with cut-outs to let the light show through more clearly.

And that, dear listener, is the origin of the gap-toothed scary pumpkin lanterns of today!

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