All Hail the Pumpkin
01 January 2017
As November is now underway there's one very large, orange vegetable that makes an appearance in the fresh produce section of the supermarkets: the pumpkin.
Known more for carving than eating in Europe, the traditional Jack-o'-Lantern has turned this vegetable into the ultimate symbol of Halloween.
Traditionally, pranksters used hollowed out turnips or mangel wurzels often carved with grotesque faces as lanterns. By those who made them, the lanterns were said to represent the spirits, or were used to ward off evil spirits. Then in the 20th century the Jack-o'-Lantern (carved from a pumpkin or turnip) was associated with the holiday of Halloween and named after the phenomenon of a strange light flickering over peat bogs, called Jack of (the) Lantern.
Halloween is also known as All Hallows' Eve or All Saints' Eve and is a celebration observed in a number of countries on 31 October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows' Day. On this day many countries are familiar with the tradition of cutting the top off pumpkins and scooping out the flesh. A task usually started by a keen small child and finished by a reluctant adult. A scary or funny face is carved into the rind to expose the hollow interior and a candle placed inside, before it is put on doorsteps and in windows for all to see.
Common ways to celebrate around this festival still include another popular part of the fresh produce aisle; the apple.
Although Halloween has come to be most closely associated with the pumpkin, apples have played an important role in its history. Apples make numerous appearances in Celtic mythology (being connected to the Otherworld) and bobbing for apples remains a popular party game even now. At the end of summer, the Celts thought the barrier between our world and the world of ghosts and spirits got really thin, this meant weird creatures with strange powers could wander about on Earth. So the Celts had a big party that was all about scaring away the ghosts and spirits. Other celebrations like apple bobbing were then introduced as part of it.
Apple bobbing used to be considered a form of divination performed around Halloween. People would dunk their heads in a vat of water and try to bite into floating apples in a quest to figure out their future spouse. Ladies would mark an apple and toss it into the tub and believed they were destined to be with whoever pulled it out of the water.
However, it's in America that Halloween as we know it now really took off. Irish immigrants to the United States raised the popularity of Halloween during the 19th century. Then during the 20th century it became more popular, with traditions like pumpkin carving and trick or treating becoming part of TV shows, books and movies.
Many people seek out the largest pumpkins for their lanterns but did you know that there is a variety called the Giant Pumpkin? It arose from the large squash of South America through the efforts of botanical societies and enthusiast farmers. These monsters can actually exceed 1 tonne in weight! Fortunately this isn't a fresh produce item we have to maneuver into our lab just yet.
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