History of Pumpkin Carving and Samhain (Halloween)

Without a doubt the most recognisable symbol of Halloween is a pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern. To understand the origins of how pumpkin carving began and what it really means we must first take a look at Halloween itself.

For most of the general population it is known as Halloween and is a night for dressing up, telling ghost stories, trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving. What most people don’t know is that Halloween is actually based on the ancient Celtic holiday, Samhain (pronounced ‘sow wan’), which means ‘summer’s end’.

It was the end of the Celtic year, starting at sundown on 31 October to sundown 1 November. It was a night to honour loved ones that had passed on since the veil between their realm and ours is at its thinnest.

Celebrated for centuries by the Celts, it is the most magical night of the year.

Glowing jack-o-lanterns, carved from turnips or gourds, were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against malevolent spirits. Burning lumps of coal were used inside as a source of light, later to be replaced by candles.

When the Irish arrived in America, they found the native pumpkin to be larger, easier to carve and seemed the perfect choice for jack-o-lanterns. Halloween didn’t really catch on in America until the late 1800’s and has been celebrated in so many ways ever since.

Pumpkins are indigenous to the western hemisphere and were completely unknown in Europe. In 1584, the French explorer Jacques Cartier reported from the St Lawrence region that he had found ‘gros melons’, which was translated into English as ‘ponpions’, or pumpkins. In fact, pumpkins have been grown in America for over 5,000 years. Native Americans called pumpkins ‘isquotersquash’.

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