These days, most kids might be forgiven for thinking that the pumpkin is just a handy candle-holder that gets carved into a scary face for Hallowe’en – and then thrown out with the rubbish.

In fact, the distinctive bright orange vegetable is one of America’s oldest native crops, and was an important staple food long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic and discovered them. 

It’s only in recent years that the UK has cottoned on to the pumpkin as a handy Hallowe’en novelty, and British supermarkets now sell millions of them over the autumn season.

Of course some of them might be destined for the pot as a pumpkin soup – but most will no doubt end up being carved into the familiar spooky head-shaped lampshades for the October 31st celebration.

Originally cultivated by the indigenous peoples of North and South America, pumpkin seeds have been found at archaeological sites dating back six thousand years.  It seems that these  ancient cultures only consumed the seeds because the flesh of most wild pumpkins was too bitter to eat. However, once cultivation altered the pumpkin enough to make it palatable, Native Americans could enjoy eating every part of the plant—seeds, flesh, flowers, and leaves. Pumpkins and squashes of all sorts could be baked or roasted whole in the fire, cut up and boiled, or added to soup.

Almost every early European explorer commented on the profusion of pumpkins in the New World. Columbus mentioned them on his first voyage, and Jacques Cartier records their growing in Canada in the 1530s.

Fast forward to 21st century Britain and we have everything from a dedicated “Pumpkin Store” in Kent, boasting an online shop selling all things Hallowe’en.  There are pumpkin ‘pick your own’ farms springing up, and a growing number of pumpkin festivals, including the very successful one at Tapnell Farm at Yarmouth, here on the Island.

The custom of making these so-called jack-o’-lanterns for Hallowe’en began in Ireland in the 19th century when the then more commonly available turnips or mangel wurzels were hollowed out and carved with grotesque faces, to be used as lanterns.

This reflected the fact that Hallowe’en evolved from the Celtic festival of Samhain –  a time when supernatural beings and the souls of the dead were believed to roam the earth, and people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts. 

So those young ‘trick-or-treaters’ who roll up at your front door later this month, demanding sweets with menaces, are actually playing the part of those much-feared ghosts and ghouls, in a lighthearted way.

Of course Hallowe’en is widely associated with mystery, magic and superstition, and this, too, goes back centuries. 

Many of the ancient October 31st rituals were about peering into the future, and many had to do with helping young women identify their future husbands. In 18th-century Ireland, for instance, a cook might bury a ring in her mashed potatoes on Halloween night, hoping to bring love to the diner who found it.

Another tale said that if a young woman ate a sweet concoction made out of walnuts, hazelnuts and nutmeg before bed on Halloween night, she would dream about her future husband.

And that still-popular Halloween game of apple-bobbing?  Well, it was originally played as a contest  to find out who would be the first to walk down the aisle.  Happy bobbing!