Fear The Pumpkin: In Ukraine, It's The Big Kiss-Off

Vegetable seller Olesya Vladymyrovna holds a pumpkin i i

hide captionVegetable seller Olesya Vladymyrovna, 55, holds a pumpkin at a market in Lviv, Ukraine. For centuries in the Eastern European nation, a pumpkin meant: "No, I will not marry you."

David Greene/NPR
Vegetable seller Olesya Vladymyrovna holds a pumpkin

Vegetable seller Olesya Vladymyrovna, 55, holds a pumpkin at a market in Lviv, Ukraine. For centuries in the Eastern European nation, a pumpkin meant: "No, I will not marry you."

David Greene/NPR

Think jack-o'-lanterns are frightening? Try being a man in Ukraine. Then you'll truly understand what it's like to fear a pumpkin.

For centuries in the Eastern European nation, a pumpkin meant one thing: No, I won't marry you.

An old tradition held that a would-be suitor would visit a woman's house to propose. If the answer was yes, there was family toasting and celebration. If no, the poor guy was silently handed a pumpkin.

Volodymir Yantsur, a tour guide in the western city of Lviv, Ukraine, dates the tradition to medieval times and says many Ukrainian men would only propose at night so they wouldn't be seen with a pumpkin in their hands if rejected.

Uncertain Origins

Why a pumpkin? As vegetables go, pumpkins are not the prettiest. And maybe that was the message for the boyfriend. Or, Yantsur says, there's this: "Some Ukrainian cookbooks suggest pumpkins are a healthy vegetable. Some even say it's good for a man's virility."

Perhaps a woman was trying to tell a man that he might want to think about using some pumpkin.

Volodymir Yantsur, a tour guide in Lviv, Ukraine i i

hide captionVolodymir Yantsur is a tour guide in Lviv, Ukraine. He says the tradition of women using pumpkins to refuse would-be suitors is centuries old and has all but faded away. But Ukrainians still use the word harbuz, or pumpkin, in casual conversation to make clear they are refusing something.

David Greene/NPR
Volodymir Yantsur, a tour guide in Lviv, Ukraine

Volodymir Yantsur is a tour guide in Lviv, Ukraine. He says the tradition of women using pumpkins to refuse would-be suitors is centuries old and has all but faded away. But Ukrainians still use the word harbuz, or pumpkin, in casual conversation to make clear they are refusing something.

David Greene/NPR

The tradition as a marriage ritual has died away. But even today, Ukrainians may use a pumpkin — or harbuz in Ukrainian — in conversation. If you say no thanks to a business deal, you might say, "I just have to hand you a pumpkin on that one."

Want to protest the president's visit? Just hold up a pumpkin — that means you want him to get lost.

And 30-year-old Volodymera Golovach confirmed that pumpkins still play a part in Ukrainian romance.

Golovach, who sells chicken at a Lviv market, recalls a love-struck young man who kept begging her for a date several years ago. He wouldn't take no for an answer. It was time.

She threatened to serve up a pumpkin.

Then "he would understand that he didn't have any chance or hope," she says. "It was sort of a joke. [But] he didn't like it."

He also never called again.

Not All Bad News

There are Ukrainians who like pumpkins, like Maria Soroka, who's 71. And when shown a pumpkin, she bursts into song.

"The pumpkin walks around the vegetable garden, asking its family, 'Are you safe and sound?' " she sang, entertaining passers-by on a sidewalk. "The pumpkin's wife, a yellow melon, says, 'We are all safe and sound!' "

Sweet old folk tune, yes. But if you're a single guy in Ukraine and your girlfriend starts humming this tune, take the hint.

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