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Hello,

As I’ll be carving for Halloween later, I’ve decided to explore the origin of the word pumpkin today.

Our 2017 pumpkins

Pumpkin has its origins in Greece and Mexico, much to my surprise. The oldest botanical evidence for pumpkins were seeds found in Mexico and dating to about 6000 B.C. Their name, however, comes from Greece rather than Mexico.

The Greek word pepon (πέπων) means large melon and probably originates from peptein meaning to cook or ripen. This passed through Latin as peponem and thence to Middle French as pompon. From French the word entered English as pumpion in the 1540s. By the 1640s, with help from some American colonists, it had found its resting place as pumpkin. Less than a decade later there are references to pumpkin pie and its fate was sealed.

I’m just glad that these days we grow pumpkins in Ireland. Having exported the festival of Halloween to North America we’re very happy to import the idea of pumpkin lanterns as a thank you. Why? Because in living memory (i.e. about half my knitting & crochet group) it was turnips (or swedes) which were carved for Halloween lanterns and trust me, carving a tough turnip is a much more perilous pursuit than pumpkin-carving. The result is pretty gruesome though.

“Traditional Irish Halloween Jack-o’-Lantern” by Rannpháirtí Anaithnid. Licensed under Creative Commons

Until next time happy reading, writing, and pumpkin carving,

Grace

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Hello,

Halloween is big in Ireland, we claim to have invented this particular celebration so the least we could do it make a fuss of it. I’m not denying America helped a lot. I mean, we used to carve turnips and those things are really hard to cut, much less carve. Pumpkins are a massive improvement, thank you.

"Traditional Irish halloween Jack-o'-lantern" by Rannpháirtí anaithnid at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Traditional_Irish_halloween_Jack-o%27-lantern.jpg#/media/File:Traditional_Irish_halloween_Jack-o%27-lantern.jpg

“Traditional Irish halloween Jack-o’-lantern” by Rannpháirtí Anaithnid from the Museum of Country Life

We don’t really call it Halloween either. Well, we do in English. But we call it Samhain in Irish or Oíche Shamhna (the night of Halloween). Halloween, as you probably know, is named for the Eve of All Hallows. All Hallows (also called All Saints) is a Christian feast day celebrated on November 1st and marks the start of November, a month dedicated to praying for those who’ve died during the previous year or years. The Mexican Day of the Dead is somewhat similar in tradition.

Samhain isn’t the same thing and its roots go much further back, pre-dating Christianity in Ireland. It is one of the four big festivals of the pagan Gaelic year (the others are Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lugnasa). It marks the transition from harvest time into the darker time of the year and this still fits with Irish seasons today. I’ve just finished harvesting most of my vegetables and hedgerow foragings, the clocks went back this weekend, and we’ve settled into to needing evening lamps and fires in the hearth until the first buds of spring.

Even the colours of the festival have significance – orange for the harvest and black for the coming darkness.

Neolithic passage tombs (c. 3,000 B.C.), including the mound of the hostages at Tara, the seat of the old Irish high Kings and not too far from my home, are sometimes aligned with sunrise on Samhain. Some of our oldest stories tell of key events happening on this date. The belief was the barriers between the underworld and the living world were weak at this time. Hence the turnip lanterns – scare away the spirits – and the costumes – pass yourself off as a spirit and they won’t take you. I’m not sure what the Gaelic spirits would make of the minion costumes this year.

An accurate origin for the word Samhain isn’t available but it is likely to be sam (old Irish for summer and similar to Old Norse sumar) and fuin (end). So although we are concerned with ghosts, spirits and death, the original word may have had more to do with the end of the growing season and the start of the long winter dark.

But what of samhainophobia? It’s a morbid fear of Halloween. All tricks and no treats for unfortunate sufferers this week. Of course, Irish children shouldn’t be speaking of tricks or treats anyhow. That’s thanks to American movies and TV (imported with those pumpkins) in the last twenty years. We always said “Help the Halloween Party” and sometimes had to perform a song or dance to earn our sweets or coins in reward.

Until next week Happy Halloween and Oíche Shamhna Maith,

Grace

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