All Saints Day, Samhain, and the Amazing Pumpkin

Jump to Pumpkin Bread recipe

October 31 has many different meanings to many Americans, depending upon each individual’s background.

dia de los muertos display.

A Día de los Muertos display. - Image via Flickr by wolves4moe

To most everyone, it is Halloween, which nowadays means kids dress up like their favorite characters and go house to house begging for sugary sweets and, if they are lucky, they will accumulate enough to be so hyper that the combined energy of a classroom full of such children could power New York City for a week.  It’s also when adults decide to dress up as witty puns or sexy versions of something or really obscure sci-fi references and consume “grown-up candy”–alcoholic beverages and desserts displayed so as to appear to be entrails or brains.  To Mexican-Americans, it’s also El Día de los Muertos, which honors the dead in celebrations as boisterous as Mardi Gras.  To Catholics, it’s the day before All Saints Day, a day of spiritual reflection.  To pagans, it’s Samhain (pronounced “sow-en” or “sow-ayn”), which celebrates the last harvest and those who have departed this life; it’s also the pagan new year.


Pumpkins are synonymous with American fall holidays. - Image by DrBacchus via Flickr

And, to most Americans, October 31 reminds them of pumpkins.  Of all the gourds that grow in the fall, pumpkins have become symbolic of this season.  Kids think of jack-o-lanterns; adults think of food.  Even typing this, I can almost taste pumpkin pie or pumpkin bread or pumpkin lattes in my mouth.

They are ubiquitous in grocery stores, hobby shops, farmers markets, and magazines this time of year, and I’m not complaining.  It’s an awesome fruit.

When it comes to edible gourds, the pumpkin is the most versatile.  You can brew your own beer in it.  You can eat the seeds.  There are hundreds–or maybe thousands–of ways you can cook it.  Yes, I may have an unhealthy fondness for pumpkins.

As a multi-faith family, our children get to celebrate two sets of holidays: Christian holidays and Wiccan ones.  So our kids were able to go trick-or-treating, celebrate Samhain, and then the humility associated with All Saints Day.  And because we are also a multicultural family, and my husband’s tribal traditions emphasize honoring one’s ancestors, the October 31-November 1 holiday season is especially important to us.  (I must emphasize that the assumption that East Africans actually worship their ancestors is a mischaracterization; ancestors are more like guardians or saints who watch over or intercede with the divine on behalf of their living progeny, or they may curse relatives who have done something terrible.  It’s a lot like East Asian ancestor veneration.)

In some ways, the three traditions are very similar.  All Saint’s Day, Samhain, and ancestor reverence all share honoring and remembering the dead in some way.  And the fact that All Saint’s Day and Samhain (and its descendant Halloween) share the same harvest-time spot on the calendar is no coincidence: when the Catholic Church was seeking to convert the pagans living in the European countryside, they aligned the timing of holy days with those already celebrated and that shared a similar meaning to ease conversion.

Green Man

A representation of the Green Man. (Image via R~P~M via Flickr)

Samhain also honors the male aspect of the divine (depending on the neopagan tradition, he is Herne, the Green Man, Pan, the Lord, just to give a few examples).  It marks the final harvest because in places above the Mason-Dixon line, this is when frost sets most nights and has effectively killed the summer grass and many plants.

Contrary to some hate rhetoric that circulates in the media this time of year, Samhain is not about human sacrifices or orgies with Satan or any other such nonsense.  The theology behind Samhain is that the male aspect of the divine dies with the harvest (to be reborn later in the Wheel of the Year on midwinter, when the days grow longer again) and the crone goddess mourns his loss.

In neopagan traditions, Samhain is said to be the day that doesn’t exist, when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead are nonexistent, making communicating with the dead easier (“the dead” isn’t just limited to people–many pagans will honor their departed pets as well).  Many pagans will light bonfires and set elaborate dishes for their departed loved ones; others may light up their homes with candles and leave west-facing doors and windows open to welcome the spirits or to help guide lost spirits towards the next life.  It’s usually a joyous celebration that typically lasts late into the night and involves feasting and music.

New Orleans Saints Logo

All Saints Day isn't about honoring the players of the New Orleans Saints. Instead, the New Orleans Saints get an entire season, from September through January or February. Celebrations are never solemn and typically require massive consumption of artery-clogging foods and alcoholic beverages. - Image via Wikipedia

All Saints Day, similarly, honors the departed.  Depending on the Christian denomination, it can vary from honoring those who have been beatified  because of their devotion to the Christian faith, and/or those whose souls are lost in purgatory or otherwise awaiting judgment, and/or all Christians who have passed on.  It’s significantly more solemn than Samhain.  People may or may not attend church on this day, depending on their faith and cultural background.  In some cultures, people light up their homes with candles (or even the graves of their loved ones).

All Saints Day Ceremony [Image 1 of 9]

All Saints Day can be a community-wide holy day or a quiet, personal time of remembrance and reflection. (Image via DVIDSHUB via Flickr)

Earlier I mentioned that many autumn holidays share a lot of similarities.  Because my husband and I are of different faiths and we wish to educate our children on both traditions (and actually all religions, in general), we have learned that it helps to point out how we are the same and embrace our differences.

This time of year is great for that.

This year, Starkitten is actually old enough to understand that it’s harvest time.  We walked around outside and observed the plants dying and the grass turning brown.  We observed the neighboring farms wrapping up harvest season.  She doesn’t really understand the concept of death in terms of loved ones (fortunately, we haven’t lost any close relatives or pets since she was born), so I spoke to her in general terms about ancestors and how this is a special time to honor them and then proceeded to give her the preschool explanation of All Saints Day and Samhain.

This time of year also great for cooking pumpkins.

And since it’s been a hectic autumn for us, I decided to cook one of my favorite comfort foods: pumpkin bread made from fresh pumpkins.

Making Pumpkin Bread

When choosing pumpkins for baking, you want to look for medium-sized ones with darker skin.  They will have the richest flavor and still have plenty of meat.  If they are too large, they will have lots of meat and seeds, but they don’t taste as pumpkiny.  The smaller ones really aren’t good for eating, although they are wonderful for painting for Halloween decorations.

The easiest way to prepare pumpkin meat for baking is to:

  1. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out all the seeds and stringy “guts,” and rinse thoroughly.  Then cut the halves into quarters.
  2. Place the pumpkin quarters with the meat side facing up on a baking sheet and bake at 300˚F for about an hour.
  3. When the meat is soft, pull out the pumpkins and set them on a rack or dish to cool.
  4. Once it’s cooled enough that you don’t burn yourself touching it, scoop out the meat (or cut it into 2-inch squares if it’s being ornery) from the shells and discard the shells.
  5. Puree the meat in a blender.

If you have any meat left over from making pumpkin bread, you can freeze it.  I typically pre-measure portions of pumpkin meat so that I can thaw out exactly what I need when I feel like making pumpkin bread later on.

While the pumpkin is baking, you can separate the seeds from the “guts” and then soak the seeds in salt water.  After you remove the pumpkin from the oven, leave the oven on.  You can drain the seeds and spread them out on the baking sheet.  Sprinkle a little cooking oil over them and bake for about 40 minutes (or more–you want them to be crispy).  When they are done, let them cool and you have a quick snack.

Ingredients for Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds are rich in antioxidants, dietary fibers, vitamin E, and tryptophan--nature's sleeping pill. Serve them up as a side to a turkey sandwich for an extra-drowsy afternoon. - Image by Sei via Wikipedia

  • 2 cups of fresh cooked pumpkin
  • 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1/2 cup water


  1. Pre-heat oven to 350˚F.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the flour, soda, sugars, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, and ginger.
  3. Add the eggs, water, oil, pumpkin, and molasses.  Stir until well blended.
  4. Pour into two lightly greased and floured 9”x5” loaf pans (or, if you wish to make cupcakes, into papered cupcake pan).
  5. Bake for about 1 hour (25 minutes for cupcakes), or until a knife stuck in the center of the bread comes out clean.

You can wrap the bread and freeze it if you decide to make large batches.  Pumpkin bread tastes well frozen because the longer it sits in the freezer, the more it brings out the pumpkin flavor.

If it's made from pumpkin--a fruit--it must be good for you, right?

Treat yourself and your significant other to a little coffee shop decadence with some pumpkin bread and chai that you made yourself.  Then you can stay in your jammies, listen to your own music, and know that you didn’t have to spend $15 to indulge yourself.

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