Sunday, August 01, 2010

A Little Pumpkin History!

For some reason I got to thinking about pumpkins the other day.

And, as you probably know - when I get to thinking - well, watch out! There may just be a history lesson coming.

Pumpkins are a big part of the Fall line-up. Whether they are used as food or used as decorations or carved for celebrations they have a big role. So, I got to thinking about pumpkins and the history of pumpkins. How long have they been around and what started the jack-o-lantern craze?

Artists and crafters have long had a fascination with pumpkins. The reason has to be because they are so versatile and no matter what type of arts & crafts you like to create - there is a pumpkin that can be made. They can be cute, delightful, and whimsical. Or, they can be downright scary and frightening. They can be wholesome or a little bit naughty. Kids love to draw them and carve them. I, of course, love to create pumpkin dolls and especially love to create custom pumpkin fabric.

My research tells me that pumpkins originated somewhere in Central America between 5,500 and 7,000 B.C. and have been used as a food staple ever since.

So, what exactly is a "pumpkin?"

Well, according to"Pumpkin is the name of a plant that refers to certain cultivars of squash, most commonly those of Cucurbita pepo, that are round, with smooth, slightly ribbed skin and deep yellow to orange coloration. The thick shell contains the seeds and pulp. Some exceptionally large cultivars of squash with similar appearance have also been derived from Cucurbita maxima. Specific cultivars of winter squash derived from other species, including C. argyrosperma, and C. moschata, are also sometimes called "pumpkin". In New Zealand and Australian English, the term "pumpkin" generally refers to the broader category called winter squash elsewhere.

Pumpkins, like other squash, are native to North America. Pumpkins are widely grown for commercial use, and are used both in food and recreation. Pumpkin pie, for instance, is a traditional part of Thanksgiving meals in the United States, although commercially canned pumpkin puree and pumpkin pie fillings are usually made from different kinds of winter squash than the pumpkins frequently carved as jack o'lanterns for decoration around Halloween.

Pumpkins, like other squash, are thought to have originated in North America. The oldest evidence, pumpkin-related seeds dating between 7000 and 5500 BC, were found in Mexico.

Since some squash share the same botanical classifications as pumpkins, the names are frequently used interchangeably. One often used botanical classification relies on the characteristics of the stems: pumpkin stems are more rigid, prickly, and angular (with an approximate five-degree angle) than squash stems, which are generally softer, more rounded, and more flared where joined to the fruit.

The color of pumpkins is derived from the orange pigments abundant in them. The main nutrients are lutein and both alpha and beta carotene, the latter of which generates vitamin A in the body.

In America the pilgrims learned about pumpkins from the Native American Indians who would cut the pumpkins into strips and then cook them over the fire. They called pumpkins "isquotersquash." Very quickly pumpkins were added to the diets of the pilgrims.

However, the pilgrims decided to cut the top of the pumpkin off and scoop out the seeds and then fill the pumpkin with honey, milk, and other spices and then baked it in hot coals. This concoction eventually became pumpkin pie as we know it today.

The pilgrims, in turn, brought pumpkin seeds back to their European countries where it became a popular part of the European diet.

In addition to use as a food staple, pumpkin shells were dried and cut into strips. Then the strips were weaved into mats.

For the Iroquois the pumpkin was grown together with corn and beans and the three became known as the "three sisters." As with many things there is a legend surrounding the "three sisters."

According to Iroquois legend, a pregnant woman who was living in the sky world wanted to have some bark of the root of the great tree that grew in the sky world. Her husband scraped the dirt away from the base of the tree to expose the roots and while doing so created a hole. After her husband had obtained the bark the woman leaned over and peered into the hole that had been created. She lost her balance and fell through the hole to the earth below and subsequently become the first human on earth.

She eventually gave birth to a daughter who grew up and and became pregnant herself with twins by the West Wind. Just before the twins were to be born they got into a fight in the womb about how they were going to be born. The left handed twin did not want to be born in the usual way and, instead, forced himself out through his mother's left armpit which subsequently killed her. The twins buried their mother and after doing so noticed that corn, beans and pumpkins sprouted from the spot where she was buried. The three later became the main food staple of the Iroquois.

Every Spring the Iroquois women would plant corn, bean, and pumpkin seeds together. They would dig holes and into each hole would put one corn seed, one bean seed, and one pumpkin seed along with a dead fish. The dead fish fertilized the ground while the corn stalk provided support for the bean vine to climb. The pumpkin plant provided ground cover to keep the weeds out and the roots of the bean added nutrients to the soil.

Eventually with the arrival of the Irish in the 19Th century the use of pumpkins for "jack-o-lanterns" was born. The Irish already had an ancient tradition of hollowing out the inside of turnips and placing lighted candles inside to scare off the evil spirits. When the Irish came to America, they discovered that the pumpkin was a much larger substitute for the turnip. If it's larger, it's scarier. If it's scarier it will ward off evil spirits.

So now we know about the history of the pumpkin. But, why are they called jack-o-lanterns? Well, it all started with a stingy Irishman (of course) named Jack who was a miserable old drunk. He like to play tricks on everyone including the Devil himself - which, of course, was very foolish. Well, he tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree and then placed crosses all around the base of the tree. The Devil couldn't get down from the tree due to the crosses so Jack made the Devil promise not to take his soul when he died. Jack removed the crosses and the Devil climbed down from the tree.

Years later, when Jack died he was told by St. Peter at the gates of heaven that he would not be let into heaven due to the life he had led on earth. Since the Devil had promised Jack he wouldn't take his soul Jack wasn't able to enter hell, either. So he was forced to roam the earth between heaven and hell in darkness with just a burning coal inside his turnip ( i.e. "Jack O'Lantern) to light the way for him.

I, personally, have made many pumpkin dolls and and various decorative crafts using my custom pumpkin fabric for my Linda Walsh Originals website.   All of my pumpkin designs and  handmade decorations made using my custom fabric designs are shown in the picture at the top of this post. 

So, pumpkins have been around for a long time. They have become an intricate part of the Fall season and Halloween. I suspect that that they will continue to be a popular tradition of families and children for years to come and, as a result, popular among artists and crafters as well.

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