Jack-o'-lanterns as art

October 17, 2003|by Chris Copley

The modern jack-o'-lantern is no longer just another carved pumpkin.

There is nothing wrong with carving jack-o'-lanterns the traditional way - triangle eyes and a gap-toothed grin - but in the past decade, crafters and home decorators have pushed the jack-o'-lantern tradition into new territory. Once a quaint custom that harkened back to an earlier, more superstitious era, jack-o'-lanterns are now thoroughly modernized. The pumpkin has become a round, orange canvas suitable for painting, carving, assemblage art and more.

Halloween history

American Halloween customs date back thousands of years. Good and evil spirits were an accepted part of life for nature-based cultures in early European history. Spirits of the dead were believed to live in a spirit world, separated from the real world by a barrier or veil.

Celtic tribes in the British isles believed that at the end of their year - Samhain, the Celts' new year's day, was celebrated on Nov. 1 - the veil separating their world from the spirit world thinned, allowing spirits to pass through and visit former friends and family. So Samhain eve became a time to honor loved ones who had died.


But sometimes spirits visited the living with malicious intent. All manner of tragic events and bad luck on the night before Samhain were attributed to the actions of evil spirits. Firelight was the Celts' protection against evil that moved in the dark. So fires - bonfires and lanterns - were lit in homes, farms and on hilltops to keep away the dark.

Autumn vegetables - gourds and turnips, for instance - became seasonal lanterns by hollowing them, puncturing holes in the skin and lighting them with a candle or glowing lump of coal. These were named after the wispy, elusive lights seen in swamps, called jack-o'-lanterns.

The tradition of carving vegetable lanterns on Oct. 31 survived when Samhain was Christianized into All Saints Day, a day for Christians to honor devout believers who had died. The night before All Saints' Day became All Hallowed Eve, or Halloween, still feared as a time when evil spirits walked the land.

The vegetable lantern tradition spread to other European cultures and, centuries later, to America. The pumpkin, the New World's large, native gourd, made a perfect lantern.

Celtic Halloween stories and customs were popularized in the late 1800s when children's magazines promoted the old traditions as good party activities for youngsters.

Carving and crafting

Today's jack-o'-lanterns offer an opportunity to celebrate seasonal symbols and customs. But the traditional approach to making jack-o'-lanterns - carving geometric holes in the pumpkin wall to let candlelight shine through - has seen much development.

Today's jack-o'-lanterns picture Halloween symbols such as bats, cats, witches, moons and ghosts, seasonal images such as corn shocks and fall leaves, patriotic symbols such as American flags, images from popular movies, or just about anything a carver can conceive. One Web site even features a pumpkin with a carved, painted version of "The Scream," by Edvard Munch.

Carvers commonly use stencils to outline an image on the skin of a pumpkin before carving. Stencils are widely available in craft stores and in craft and homemaking magazines. A search of the Web for jack-o'-lantern stencils will turn up hundreds of sites with thousands of designs. Two popular sites are or

But crafters with an artist's eye also may design their own.

How to carve a pumpkin

The process for making a jack-o'-lantern is simple. Rebecca's Garden, at, provides typical directions.

Before carving, gather your pumpkin and tools: a sharp, serrated knife; an ice cream scoop or strong-handled spoon; stencils or a drawing you make or even a selection of fall leaves; a felt-tip pen or pastry wheel; straight pins; petroleum jelly; and a votive candle.

Advice: The color of a pumpkin skin is a good indicator of how easy it is to carve, according to Rebecca's Garden. Lighter orange pumpkins are easier to carve but begin rotting sooner. Deeper orange pumpkins are harder, but last longer.

Cut off a circular "lid" using the stem as a handle. Pull off the lid, cut or scrape off any stringy threads hanging to the lid, and set aside. Using a strong spoon, scoop out all the goopy seeds and webby threads inside the pumpkin. Scrape off the inner layer of the pumpkin wall for best results. It's a messy and slimy job; kids love doing it.

If you use a stencil, pin or tape it to the pumpkin and trace it with the felt marker or pastry wheel. Remove stencil and carefully carve the drawing. Clean up the cut edges, if you want. Pop out the cut-out parts and discard.

If your design is intricate or complicated, start in the center of the drawing and cut outward.

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