Pumpkin decor and jack-o’-lanterns have become ubiquitous symbols of Halloween, but how did a simple squash become a quintessential part of this American holiday? Cindy Ott explores this and other surprising stories about the pumpkin’s rise to icon status in her book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. Beginning with the myth of the first Thanksgiving, she shows how Americans have used the pumpkin to fulfill their desire to maintain connections to nature and to the family farm of lore, and how small farms and rural communities have been revitalized in the process. In the following excerpt from the book, Ott delves into the origins and evolution of Halloween pumpkin traditions.
When most Americans think about communing with nature, they probably do not think about celebrating Halloween, but its festivities say a lot about how Americans imagine the natural world around them. While adult costume parties and parades still define the holiday, they share the night with children walking from door to door in costumes, yelling ‘Trick or Treat!’ to be rewarded with candies from their neighbors. The tradition started in the 1920s and became more popular with post-World-War II suburbanization and the baby boom. Pumpkins ranging from a single jack o’ lantern to more elaborate displays greet neighborhood children. Some homes metamorphose into haunted-house extravaganzas, with cobwebs stretched across bushes, faux gravestones planted in yards, paper skeletons hanging from porch rafters, and glowing jack-o’-lanterns perched on doorsteps. Others highlight a country feel, with hay bales, pumpkin-headed scarecrows, cornstalks, folk-art style wooden pumpkin cutouts, and fresh pumpkins piled decoratively near potted mums. Continue reading