Halloween: the origin of carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns

Posted by Guest Author on October 2, 2012 in Flower Gardening, Vegetable & Fruit Gardening | 0 comments

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Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Pumpkins in fields and farmstands in the fall conjure up images of jack-o-lanterns and Halloween. The traditions of these and other fruits, vegetables, and herbs, have ancient origins.

While we have the church of around 700 A.D. to thank for the name of this holiday celebrating the “holy evening” before All Saints Day, we have ancient Celts and their Druid priests to thank for the customs. Decorating with pumpkins, apples, and cornstalks originated about 2000 years ago with ancient Celtic peoples who lived in what we now know as the British Isles and northern France. The autumn festival called “Samhain” (pronounced SAH-win) marked the transition between the end of summer (and its harvest, celebrated with cornstalks, leaves, fruits and vegetables) and upcoming dark winter days. In their tradition, it marked the boundary between the living and the dead.
The Celts believed that on the last day of October, ghosts of the dead would walk among them. To ward off evil spirits, large bonfires were lit. From this custom evolved the carving of large turnips or beets with faces, and placing glowing coal or candles inside, to ward off such evil spirits. When the Irish immigrants arrived in America, they found pumpkins abundant and much easier to carve than turnips. And thus, the tradition of turning pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns began.
Another legend has it that Stingy Jack was a clever farmer, drunkard and liar, who tricked the devil. He supposedly carved a cross on a tree to try and get the devil to climb it, and so entrap the devil. In return for this attempt, the devil gave Jack only one small light in a scooped out turnip (translated to pumpkins when immigrants came to America) to light his way as he wandered forever in darkness.
How to predict the future with apples, cabbage and nuts
We’re all familiar with the Halloween party game, “bobbing for apples”. This custom, too, has ancient origins as apples were held sacred by the pagans. This practice in particular may date back to the Roman festival of Pomona, combining a water ritual of Druids with homage to the goddess of fruit trees.
During the Victorian era, the apple played a significant role in determining a young girl’s future. By slipping an apple under her pillow on Halloween eve, she was sure to dream of her sweetheart. At midnight on Halloween, a girl would stand in front of a mirror and brush her hair three times while eating an apple. The image of her future husband was said to then appear in the mirror over her shoulder. Once she saw his face, she peeled an apple in a single strip. She tossed the peel over her left shoulder using her right hand. The peel would form the first initial of his name, as described in a popular rhyme of that time.
Another way to learn about one’s future spouse was to visit the cabbage patch on Halloween. Both young men and women followed this ritual, rushing into the garden to pick the first cabbage they saw. If the cabbage had a short stalk, the spouse would be short; a long stalk, the spouse would be tall. Dirt on the leaves meant the one who picked the plant would marry rich.
If a young maiden couldn’t choose between two suitors, on Halloween night she took a pair of hazelnuts, each for one of her beaus, then tossed them into the fire. The nut that burned the brightest or popped the loudest indicated which man was to be hers. In England, this night became known as Nutcrack Night.
Nuts were used for other marital predictions too, and not just at Halloween. If an engaged couple each threw a nut on the fire and these burned quietly, the marriage would be smooth; yet if the nuts cracked and hissed, the marriage would be rough. If just the woman put two nuts on the fire, one for herself and one for her lover, their relationship was foretold to be rough if the nuts crackled.
Herbs for protection from evil spirits and witches
Other plants and herbs have also been associated with Halloween. In Mediterranean countries, prior to the fourteenth century, rosemary was placed over the cradles of babies to protect them, not just on Halloween, but year round. Rosemary was often burned with juniper and thyme as a means of cleansing a room of witches and bad spirits.
Rue, a strongly scented evergreen shrub, was hung from doorways and windows to ward off evil spirits and prevent them from entering the house, as was oregano, caraway and fennel. Rue also was carried about to ward off evils such as snake bites and poisons.
Legend has it that thyme should be carried to protect against witches. Angelica and dill were grown in monastery gardens, and were believed to offer protection from witchcraft. Salvia, which is also known as meadow sage, was considered a symbol of immortality. When planted on graves in cemeteries, this perennial was believed to give the dead “eternal life.”
This year, when you’re carving pumpkins, decorating with cornstalks, or bobbing for apples, consider the origins of these traditions and the ancient uses of herbs. In celebration of the end of another growing season, and hopefully bountiful harvests, have a Happy Halloween.
(Some of this information was adapted from an article by former Extension press editor Lisa Halvorsen.)
This article originally appeared on Perry’s Perennials, Halloween Horticulture