It’s a dark night in autumn. Days are becoming shorter and colder. Harvest time is ending, and pantries are being stocked with fruits and nuts for winter. Inside, beside a warm fire, an old uncle tells ghost stories. Firelight gleams on a bowl of red apples, ready for fortune telling and games. Spiced cider flows, and young people, some wearing odd costumes, dance under the flickering light of turnip lanterns.
Many customs of the holiday we call Halloween date to traditions across prehistoric Europe. But turnip lanterns, at least in the United States, have been replaced by easier-to-carve pumpkins, with—let’s face it—more impressive, large, orange shapes. A glowing turnip or pumpkin, however, has the same purpose: to drive away the darkness, scare away the spooks, and light the way to the next party.
Centuries ago, when rooms were illuminated by fire, Europe’s inhabitants were farmers or herders whose lives depended on knowing the rhythms of the year. Halloween (or Samhain, as it once was called) falls on the midpoint between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. According to the Celtic calendar, which began its holidays on the eve before, Halloween was the start of the new year.
“To understand the significance of these seasonal festivals, we need to step back in time for a moment, closer to the food production cycle than most of us are today,” says Bettina Arnold, co-director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Celtic Studies. Certain food plants had important ties to the holiday’s meaning.
First the Apple
Native to eastern Turkey and southwestern Russia, apples have a long relationship with civilization and its myths and symbols. As members of the rose family, apples and their flowers have associations with Venus, goddess of love and fertility.
Poised on the threshold of the new year, Halloween was viewed as a time when it was possible to see into the future, and fortune telling often involved love and marriage predictions. An apple peel thrown over the shoulder, for instance, could predict the first letter of a true love’s name. Peeling an apple in front of a mirror by candlelight might reveal an image of a lover. And the first person to bite an apple floating in a dish of water would be the first to wed (not to mention that apple bobbing might provide quite an opportunity for real-time flirting).
Grown from seed, apples tend to revert to wild species with small, sour fruit. Gradually, over many thousands of years, improved selections were preserved by grafting. Carried by traders, invaders and Romans into Europe, apples were brought to the New World by the first colonists in the 1600s, and the first orchard was said to be planted near Boston in 1625.
Today, 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the United States, including 100 in commercial production. Red Delicious and Golden Delicious are the two most popular varieties, but one attraction of growing apples in a home orchard is to experience the rare, more historic types. The Lady or Api apple is one of the oldest, dating to 15th-century France. It’s aromatic and sweet, but susceptible to apple scab (a fungal disease) where springs are wet.
More practical growers should consider the newer, disease-resistant varieties, such as Liberty, a type of McIntosh developed in New York in 1962. Between the old and the new are hundreds of choices for baking, cooking, saucing and eating fresh. Before planting an apple tree, consult your county’s cooperative extension for recommended varieties and regional advice. Then commit to a routine for pruning, fertilizing, watering and pest control.
Pumpkins Light the Way
“Pumpkins carved as jack-o’-lanterns would not have been part of traditional Halloween festivals in Celtic Europe, since pumpkins are New World plants,” Arnold says. Instead, the Europeans hollowed out large turnips, carved faces into them and placed them in windows to ward off any evil spirits.
The turnip-carving tradition survives today. Every November, the village of Richterswil on Lake Zurich in Switzerland is filled with thousands of glowing turnips, brightened from within by candles. Cultivated in Europe for 4,000 years, turnips seem to have a greater appreciation there than here.
Arriving in the New World, colonists found Native Americans growing pumpkins and eventually adapted them to Halloween purposes. They also took a step toward pumpkin pie by filling pumpkins with milk and spices and baking them whole on the hearth.
Pumpkins with “sugar” or “pie” in their names, such as Small Sugar or New England Pie, are likely to have good taste and texture for pies, although butternut squash or neck pumpkins will provide smooth, flavorful, non-stringy flesh for recipes, too.
All pumpkins and squash belong to the genus Cucurbita. C. moschata varieties are widely used for commercial canned pumpkin. Looking to grow a big one? Choose one of the C. maxima varieties, such as Atlantic Giant or Prizewinner. For cuteness in a pumpkin, C. pepo includes miniature varieties such as Jack-Be-Little and Munchkin.
Pumpkins are easy to grow, given enough water, fertilizer and space. The sprawling vines can be vigorous, so allow about 100 square feet for each hill of two or three plants. Prepare the soil by digging in several inches of compost or composted manure. Sow the seeds in warm soil, after threat of frost has passed. The maturity date for the variety and the length of your growing season will determine the exact sowing date. Harvest when the pumpkins are a deep, solid color and the rind is hard. Leave 3 to 4 inches of stem attached to the pumpkins when cutting them from the vine, and store them in a moderately warm, dry place.
The Journey to the Otherworld
The Celts believed that the souls of people who had died that year journeyed to the spirit world during Halloween/Samhain. The holiday’s bonfires and glowing turnips helped the dead on their journey while protecting the living, according to Jack Santino, a professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University who studies celebrations and their cultural meaning.
The living might have found protection by carrying a piece of asafetida in their pockets. Asafetida is an herbalresidue so vile smelling it was also called “devil’s dung.” A resin obtained from the root of Ferula assa-foetida (fennel-like plants native to the Middle East), asafetida once was used widely in medicine and in cooking. (Its flavor reportedly improves greatly when diluted in hot oil.)
German immigrants brought the practice of carrying asafetida for protection to this country, and you still can find this unusual herb for sale in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where much of the German culture survives, herbalist Jesse Tobin says. Tobin is a founder of The Three Sisters Center near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which offers an herbal guild, workshops and demonstrations of Pennsylvania German healing and spiritual traditions.
But perhaps the plant with the strongest ties to Halloween was the elderberry, Sambucus nigra. A small, bushy tree with white flowers and almost black berries, the elderberry was associated with the Germanic goddess Holle (or sometimes Hulda) and was named Hollerbeier for her. Guardian of the dead, the goddess survives today in caricature as a Halloween witch. But as Frau Holle, she was a caring grandmother and wise crone. She helped souls cross over and took messages to them—perhaps written in elderberry juice ink.
In North America, European immigrants found their elderberry’s close relative, S. canadensis, and continued their traditions. People carried pieces of its wood for protection, tied prayers to its branches and left apples beneath it as offerings. “When you think of the magical plants of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the elderberry is number one,” Tobin says.
The elderberry also has been revered for its health benefits since the time of Hippocrates. A tea from its flowers treats cold and flu symptoms, substantiated by the German Commission E (that country’s equivalent of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration), and its berries are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C. “Elderberry was so important in Europe, and in almost all cases, it has the same associations,” Tobin
Joanna Poncavage is a Pennsylvania journalist and author who frequently writes about gardens, plants and the Pennsylvania Germans.