Why Pumpkins? A Botanical History of Jack O’Lanterns
Written by Olivia Ott, Thinkery Volunteen | October 31, 2015
It’s October 31st (in my opinion probably the best day on the calendar), Halloween Night. You’re dressed up in an epic costume, ready to go trick-or-treating. The whole street is abuzz with the Halloween spirit–yards decorated with spooky statues and lights, candy bowls set out, pumpkins carved-
How did they get in here? How did pumpkins end up hollowed out and carved with funny or scary faces for Halloween? To figure it out, we need to travel back in time to when Halloween first originated.
Halloween today comes from a blend of two different holidays–the Irish harvest festival of Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”, meaning Summer’s End) and the Christian tradition of All Hallows’ Eve. We get most of the practices of Halloween from Samhain, including Jack o’ Lanterns. According to lore, the Irish believed that on Samhain evil spirits could come back to this world and haunt villages. To keep these spirits away, they would hollow out turnips and mangelwurzels, both root vegetables, to make lanterns. Sometimes they would carve ghoulish faces on them for extra protection. These lanterns served a double purpose as practical lanterns, lighting the way for harvest festivities on a cold night.
But how did those turnip lanterns turn into the pumpkin Jack O’ Lanterns we’re so familiar with?
It all has to do with botany.
Turnips and pumpkins are two completely different plants. All living things are classified into 7 different groups: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. Pumpkins and turnips are both part of the Plantae kingdom, but that’s where their similarities end. They’re part of different phylums and classified separately from there.
This means they grow best in different environments; pumpkins are a very tender vegetable and cannot be planted while the soil is cold. They need warm conditions to grow. Thus, they have developed and flourished in Mexico for thousands of years and were first domesticated by humans in 5000 BCE. Turnips, on the other hand, grow in cooler climates and can be planted as soon as the soil is workable. That’s how they ended up being a staple of European cooking and readily available for Irish lanterns.
Around the middle of the 19th century, the tradition of Halloween spread to America, when a large famine hit Ireland. This caused thousands of Irish citizens to migrate to America for better prospects, bringing their traditions with them.
They had to adapt their practices to the environment in America, which was quite different from Ireland in some areas. Most significant to us, the turnips wouldn’t grow was well. The Irish quickly discovered pumpkins as a great alternative, especially because they were bigger, and thus brighter.
The tradition of Halloween (Jack O Lanterns and all) soon spread throughout America, becoming the fun holiday that many of us will celebrate this weekend.