One of the most exciting activities leading up to Halloween is the ritual carving of a pumpkin. Jack-o-lanterns and other types of pumpkin art can add a bit of festive atmosphere to any porch, front hall, or dining table.
Creating your Jack-o-lantern
Before you get started, make sure you’ve got a good pumpkin. Check out the selection at your local grocery store, farmer’s market, or take a field trip to one of the various pumpkin patches around the Lower Mainland.
Try to pick a pumpkin that suits the design you want to carve. Short and fat ones are best for friendly or goofy faces, while long, skinny pumpkins can be great for scary ghosts or skeletons. And don’t be afraid of imperfections – bumps and scars can make excellent features, like witch’s warts.
Once you’ve got a pumpkin, pick the design you’re going to carve. Typical jack-o-lanterns have a face, complete with geometric features that can be adapted into any expression. But feel free to experiment – artistic pumpkins with silhouettes or unique designs can make your front steps the talk of the town. You can find free printable designs on a number of Halloween websites, or draw your own.
Make sure to cover your work area with newspaper or a garbage bag to reduce the mess. When you’re ready, you can begin to cut a hole in the top (or bottom) of the pumpkin. Use a kitchen knife or a pumpkin saw, and cut at a 45-degree angle towards the centre so the top piece doesn’t fall through when you put it back on. Just make sure the hole is big enough to fit your fist and a scraper inside.
Using a large spoon or another scraping tool, remove the innards of the pumpkin. You're going to have to get your hands dirty to pull out all the stringy bits and seeds. Continue scraping until all the strings are removed and you have a relatively clean inner surface. You can save the seeds to bake for a nice, salty snack, or even cook and puree the fleshy parts to make a homemade pumpkin face mask.
Rinse the pumpkin both inside and out, getting rid of any excess slime or dirt. Then pat it dry with a towel before you get going with your design.
Use pins or other tools to affix your pattern to the pumpkin. Photo by Nick Taylor.
To transfer a pattern from paper to pumpkin, try attaching the sheet to the front of your pumpkin with pushpins or toothpicks. Use another pushpin to poke holes at key points in the pattern, creating a sort of connect-the-dots that you can follow with a marker or knife. You may also choose to draw your design straight onto the pumpkin, but use a washable marker or pen for easy removal.
You can carve your pumpkin with a combination of tools – knives, pumpkin saws, utility blades or wood carving tools can all work well for different shapes and levels of difficulty. Just be careful when you’re cutting, and take your time. If you make a mistake, or want to add a removed chunk to your design, you can attach it to the cut edges using a toothpick.
To help extend the life of your jack-o-lantern, try rubbing the cut edges with petroleum jelly to prevent them from drying out. Then check out your final product by inserting a candle, flashlight or other light source.
Jack-o-lanterns got their name from an 18th century Irish folk tale about a man named Stingy Jack, who made a deal with the Devil and then trapped him in a tree. It appeared the Devil had been outsmarted, but when Jack eventually died, he was denied entrance into Heaven because of his devious acts and trickery. The Devil had promised not to take his soul, so Jack was locked out of Hell, too.
For some reason – perhaps in mocking or in recognition of Jack’s quick wit – the Devil handed Jack a glowing ember from the fires down below, to light his way through the eternal darkness. Jack placed the light in a hollowed out turnip and went on his way, to suffer forever in the afterlife between Heaven and Hell.
Historically, people made lanterns out of all types of gourds – from turnips and rutabagas to various squash. The majority later turned to pumpkins, since they were less expensive, bigger and easier to carve.