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by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

November 20, 2017

It's funny how we hang on to traditions-- especially ancient traditions. Take Halloween for example. Started nearly 3,500 years ago by the Celtic people near Britain, it was a special day set aside to mark the end of the harvest and acknowledge the beginning of the long dark and cold season.

            To celebrate, the leaders, called "Druids" would order all fires in the village to be extinguished. A large sacrificial fire was built in the center the village. People would arrive near sunset carrying large turnips hallowed out with grotesque faces carved into them-- kind of like we do with pumpkins (jack-o-lanterns). The evil looking turnips, called neeps, were filled with tallow (animal fat) and mounted on poles or sticks and ignited in flames.

            The flaming neeps were carried around to frighten away the "evil ones" that come during the season of dankness. Villagers would dance and wave their neep lanterns to frighten way any evil spirits.

            After the ceremony each family would carry home their flaming neep to rekindle their own hearth fire. Great care was taken to keep this new fire and its protective glow from going out all winter.

            If you haven't guessed by now, the use of turnips gave way to the pumpkin after settlers came to North America. The reason is, pumpkins are native to North America and were not know to Europeans.

            Pumpkins are the oldest cultivated vegetable crop in North America. By the time any European explorers landed in this New World, native peoples had been growing pumpkins for nearly 11,000 years.

            Native peoples are responsible for a wide variety of foods we still eat today. Some examples of these are the common bean, chili peppers, squash, amaranth, sweet potato, potato, bottle gourds and most importantly corn. Unlike corn, pumpkins have changed very little since it was first grown in primitive gardens.

Pumpkins and their seeds were traded all across Central America and the American Southwest. By about three to four thousand years ago, the use of pumpkins had made it to the plains and woodland Indians of central North America.

            In the late 1700's, Yale students were calling New Englanders "pumpkin heads" because of their heavy diet of pumpkins. Before Boston was called beantown it was called pumpkinshire. By 1845 the term pumpkin had come to mean stupid and thickheaded. Since than the word has changed to "Bumpkin".

Pumpkins were a major source of food for the early European migrants to America. But in 1893 a New York seed salesman Peter Henderson wrote, " The pumpkin is yet offered in large quantities for sale in our markets, but it ought to be banished from them as it has been for sometime from our garden."  By the mid-1900's pumpkins fell out of favor and hasn't been back except for pies and seeds.

            This year when you and your family are out picking your pumpkin to carve into a jack-o-lantern, take a minute to consider the history behind this incredible edible vegetable. Until next time...


Stan Tekiela is an author and naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com.  He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com



Photo by Stan Tekiela

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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