Halloween history: UD professor explains close connections between fall and pumpkins

Halloween does not seem complete without a Jack O' Lantern, and what's Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? A University of Delaware professor has looked into the connection between the round orange squash and the season of fall.

The wave of European immigration brought Halloween traditions to the United States, according to UD Associate Professor of History and Material Culture Cindy Ott. The tradition in Ireland was to carve a face into a turnip. Pumpkin was a food to be eaten during tough times.

"When people could afford to eat other foods, they switched to eating cabbage, onions and other things Europeans were used to eating," Ott said. 

Farmers kept growing pumpkin: it was easy to grow and it made a cheap substitute for fertilizer. While its desirability diminished, Ott said the pumpkin further established its connection with the fall season - Halloween in particular.

The first pumpkin Jack O' Lanterns, Ott said, likely started to appear in the 1860s or  1870s.

"Long before that, there was a tradition of associating the pumpkin with wild nature and wilderness," Ott said. "It was a plant that had these long vines, it  grew very quickly and it had huge roots."

It's head-like shape, she said, made it perfect for the Jack O' Lantern.

Today, families drive miles from home to pick a pumpkin, carving contests draw big crowds, and the humble pumpkin and its accompanying spices flavor foods and drinks from late August until nearly the end of the year.

"Americans turned it into dessert because it represents the harvest, and this old-fashioned way of making a living off the land," Ott said.

Ott is the author of "Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon."

Reporter - Anchor

Mark Fowser is a veteran journalist in Delaware.