Pumpkin pie is a historic ingredient of Christmas.
Strangely it is one national day that many say is of unknown origin. Usually a national food day is the brainchild of a food producer yet no company lays claim to Nation Pumpkin Pie Day.
How and why did this happen?
To understand National Pumpkin Pie Day you have to know the history of Christmas in America.
~ Pumpkin Rituals of the 21st Century ~
Pumpkin season has emerged as a pre-cursor to the Christmas season here in the 21st century.
It launches sometime in August as Starbucks releases the seasonally available Pumpkin Spice Latte. From that point forward all things “pumpkin spice” show up on grocery shelves.
It is so prolific a host of fake pumpkin themed products are pushed in memes and parody videos all over the Internet. Pumpkin season is, besides delicious, something to poke fun at.
These days it seems the terms “pumpkin” and “pumpkin spice” are synonymous with the autumn season. Summer ends with a crazed period of pumpkin themed products and foods and Christmas does not begin until the pumpkin pie is devoured on Thanksgiving Day.
It has not always been so.
In fact, pumpkin has been wildly popular and celebrated in American culture for over 500 years. But it was at Christmastime – not the months of August through November – where pumpkin pie gained such a devoted following.
No other food consistently graced the Christmas table like pumpkin pie did in early American culture. It was there before Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas lights and Christmas decorations.
But pumpkin pie was there for Christmas – a colorful, flavorful element of festive year-end celebration that nearly everyone enjoyed.
We would not have the pumpkin season we love so much today without Christmas.
~ Understanding Pumpkin ~
The history of pumpkin goes back thousands of years. The pumpkin we have and know today is not quite the same, but nothing of our organic food now is the same. It has evolved.
The most important thing to know about pumpkin is that it was in North America, in abundance, when people arrived here. (And by the term “people”, we mean Native Americans).
Cultivated independently by the indigenous peoples of North and South America, pumpkins—or more accurately, pumpkin seeds—have been found at archaeological sites in the American southwest dating back six thousand years, as well as at sites throughout Mexico, Central and South America, and the eastern United States.
Almost every early European explorer commented on the profusion of pumpkins in the New World. Columbus mentioned them on his first voyage, Jacques Cartier records their growing in Canada in the 1530s, Cabeza de Vaca saw them in Florida the 1540s, as did Hernando de Soto in the 1550s.
In the 1580s, Thomas Hariot, scientific adviser to the Roanoke expedition, realized early on that the multitudes of colors and shapes of pumpkins were actually quite similar in taste.
The Mayflower Puritans of 1620 seem to get all the historic attention when it comes to things like pumpkin and Christmas. After all, it was our Puritan forefathers most often credited with celebrating the first Thanksgiving.
But it was in Jamestown that Captain John Smith described in 1612 how the Powhatans grew pumpkins nearby.
In fact, the Native American cultivation of pumpkin taught European settlers a thing or two about agriculture. Native Americans cultivated their pumpkins after planting them with corn and beans. Indians called these “the three sisters” and took advantage of their symbiotic relationship to improve yield.
The corn supports the bean vines, the big pumpkin leaves shade the shallow roots of the corn, holding moisture and discouraging weeds, and the bean roots provide nitrogen to the soil.
Pumpkin is a squash.
It grows over hot summer seasons and can last in cool storage for many months. Pumpkin was a very versatile and reliable food source for both man and beast anciently.
Pumpkin is also very mild. Its fruit is plentiful, easily prepared and it blends well with a broad variety of spices.
Pumpkin in its history has also been matched with meats and vegetables, as well as with molasses and other sweeteners. It can be used in soups, stews or desserts.
~ Understanding Pumpkin Spice ~
Any mention of “pumpkin spice” these days causes some to think of pumpkin as a flavor of fall.
It is warm, aromatic and often sweet.
But pumpkin among chefs is most often referred to as a base – it is something that gives substance to other blended ingredients. You see, there is no pumpkin in “pumpkin spice”.
Pumpkin spice is typically made up of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and other spices, such as cloves. History.com says these and other spices date back as far as 3500 years.
Spices in the Old World made life interesting for settlers in the New World. Wars were fought over the stuff.
Nutmeg, for example, was big business back in the 17th century. So big, in fact, that the Dutch traded Manhattan to the British for just one small Indonesian island where the world’s supply of nutmeg then originated.
All of these spices were used with other foods besides pumpkin, of course, but when combined with pumpkin something magical was born in the New World diet.
That magic happened at a time when American holiday traditions were just taking shape on their own.
~ Pumpkin and Christmas ~
There were no holidays on any kind of official calendar for our colonial ancestors. In fact, the Puritans are famous for resisting the English traditions of holiday celebrations.
But as we have noted before the banishment of the English Christmas among the Puritans did not mean they did not celebrate Christmas. They were here to establish their own traditions. Pumpkin is but one small way they accomplished this.
Agrarian life in the 1600s followed a pattern established by seasonal weather. The new year began in winter, planting was done in spring, crops grew over the summer and were harvested in the fall. If successful, they celebrated.
In the Puritan north of New England that big, family, food-centered event was known as “thanksgiving” – a time where God was acknowledged through the blessing of a bounteous feast once “all was safely gathered in”.
Some suggest that the Puritan Thanksgiving was really their version of the wild English Christmas. Thanksgiving was when they feasted, sang, dance, played games or engaged in wild diversions.
Christmas is when they celebrated the birth of Christ through devotions and quieter family gatherings where food also played a crucial part.
At both Christmas and Thanksgiving pumpkin pie was a highlight. In fact, the highlight. From the earliest news publications (1630) in the western world we read the of the pleasures and praise of pumpkin:
“For pottage and puddings and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies:
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins, we would be undoon.”
It would be important to note that even historians at Jamestown acknowledge the love of pumpkin pie as seasonal celebrations were held there, too.
Though some 500 miles or so to the south, and at a time when those worlds did not collide, the New World adoption of mixing Old World ingredients during holiday celebrations was something both shared in common. Jamestown, you see, had pumpkin pie as well.
One historian notes with wry commentary that pumpkin pie used many of the same spices as the so-call all American apple pie. But pumpkin pie is the one everyone for decades wrote about in poetry and press during the holiday season.
Something about it just made the season more festive.
~ Dumb Historical Assumptions about Pumpkin Pie ~
Many foodie websites claim early American pumpkin pie was not like the pumpkin pie we eat today. They claim they did not have butter to make pie crusts nor ovens to cook in. Many of these same sources also say there was no turkey at the “first Thanksgiving”, too, for the same reasons.
Those are dumb historical assumptions, not facts.
While the noted feast of 1621 may have been less like the Thanksgiving we celebrate today in terms of food it did not take long for them to get there.
Cows, for example, made it to Plymouth Colony in 1624. It was not long before they had butter, milk, beef and all things dairy.
Flour is another staple they say early colonialists lacked. Grist mills, however, were constructed in North America in the early 1600s and what were they used for besides making flour? Perhaps flour as we know it today was not available but that is not to say Puritans and pilgrims in America did not have any flour. They did.
Another strange historical assumption is that early colonial settlers did not have ovens, and thus could not make pies. This is another false notion as records of the time indicate colonialists from the earliest generations clearly ate baked goods.
Colonial “kitchens” as we call them were built around the hearth. Open flames gave variety to all kinds of cooking methods, from boiling to, yes, baking. It was laborious and most baking was set aside for a certain day of the week. But pies were indeed made, not just during holidays.
~ Facts of Modern Pumpkinology ~
Pumpkin as a food, as a flavor and as a tradition has evolved to interesting new levels. Here are some modern facts about pumpkin you should know:
- Canned pumpkin usually does not actually contain pumpkin. Most is made of Dickinson squash, a relative of butternut and acorn squash. FDA label requirements do not stipulate what type of “pumpkin” should be used.
- Small “sugar pie pumpkins” make for the best puree that makes the richest pies, although puree can be made of any type of pumpkin.
- A typical pumpkin contains 500 seeds.
- Pumpkins are 90% water.
- Starbucks does not use any pumpkin in their products.
- Thanksgiving was celebrated regularly since the mid-1600s in America. Abraham Lincoln finally made it a holiday in 1863.
- Southern States mounted an opposition to Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie specially during the Civil War. Though widely celebrated in the South they claimed it was a Yankee tradition.
- National Pumpkin Pie Day falls on Christmas because pumpkin pie is America’s original Christmas food.