Halloween, originally spelt Hallowe'en, comes from the word All-hallow-even, meaning All Hallows Eve. It was originally a Pagan festival until it was adopted by Christian missionaries and given a Christian interpretation, but the festival we know of nowadays has its roots in Celtic Ireland pagan tradition. Despite its popularity in America, most Halloween customs actually originated in Ireland.
In Ireland, Halloween was celebrated as Samhain Night, or the "End of Summer", when the dead revisited the mortal world, and large bonfires were lit to guard off spirits. They continued to celebrate the pagan festival even after the arrival of Christianity and after Pope Gregory IV adopted October 31st as the recognised date in 835.
There is little documentation available describing how Halloween was celebrated in early times, other than what has already been mentioned. Nowadays, no matter where you are, Halloween is celebrated in some fairly common ways, ranging from dressing up in spooky costumes such as ghosts or witches, to going out tricking or treating for sweets, and lets not forget decorating or carving pumpkins.
Halloween was not adopted in America until the 19th Century, and was largely brought across by the mass migration of two million Irish settlers following the Irish Potato famine. Scottish settlers' interpretation of Halloween was also brought across around the same time, and together they formed the current traditions we see today.
Halloween imagery is wide and varied; it borrows a lot from the underlying season of autumn itself, and also has a large occult influence, involving themes of death, magic, monsters, ghosts, ghouls, aliens, witches, wizards, demons, werewolves, black cats, spiders… the list is endless! Black, orange, purple, green and red are strong associations of Halloween too. One of the strongest images of Halloween is of course the subject of our article - pumpkins.
So what are pumpkins?
So what are pumpkins? It may sound like a silly question, but are they a fruit or a vegetable? Technically, they are a fruit, because they have their seeds on the inside, similar to cucumbers and melons - indeed, they are from the same family of fruit, the cucurbits, the same family as squashes, although when they are cooked they are often treated as a vegetable.
Pumpkins vary in size and colour - they are usually orange, but cream and even green varieties, such as Ghost or Crown Prince, can be found. In recent years, cream varieties are gaining more popularity on Halloween due to their ghostly look. They vary in size from a few pounds or a kilogram (varieties such as Becky), up to the world record which currently stands at 1,469 pounds (666kg) for the Atlantic Giant variety. Pumpkins are perhaps the most popular fruit or vegetable grown for size competitions, although ones around the 3-10 kg size are best for carving into Halloween faces.
Most pumpkins are orange because they contain large amounts of lutein (an antioxidant), and alpha- and beta-carotene (also found in carrots), all of which help form Vitamin A in the body - so not only are they fun to carve, but good to eat too!
So where do Pumpkins fit into halloween? Pumpkins are used to create modern day Jack O'Lanterns, but it wasn't always a pumpkin that was used. The story of the Jack O'Lantern dates back hundreds of years into Irish folklore, and there are several variations.
The most common story is of a drunkard called Stingy Jack was always playing tricks on everyone - his family, friends, and then even the devil, who one day he tricked into climbing up into an apple tree. Once up there, Stingy Jack placed a crosses around the trunk of the tree, which the devil was unable to cross. To be allowed down, the devil had to promise to not take Jack to hell when he died, and Jack let him down. When Jack did finally die, he went to heaven but was not allowed in because he was too mean and cruel, so was sent down to hell, but the devil kept his promise and wouldn't let him in. He was left to wander around in the darkness between heaven and hell, with only an ember from the flames of hell that the devil gave him. To hot to hold, Jack hollowed out a turnip, and placed the ember in it, creating his Jack O'Lantern.
There are minor variations of this story, but they all have a similar theme. On All Hallow's Eve, the Irish used to hollow out turnips, gourds, potatoes or beets, and place a light in them to ward off evil spirits and of course, Stingy Jack, and to welcome home spirits of ancestors - these were the original Jack O'Lanterns. When the Irish immigrants came to America in the 1800s, they discovered pumpkins growing in abundance, and found that they were bigger and easier to carve out, and then adopted those from then on as their Jack O'Lanterns.
For a longer and slightly different version of this try, read this fable.
Of course, since pumpkin carving is just so unbelievably fun, this is a practise which has endured to today, and Halloween is now more popular than ever, with pumpkins literally flying off the shelves in the run up to Halloween.
How do you carve a pumpkin?
So, how do you carve a pumpkin? It's easy as pumpkin pie. First, decide what size pumpkin you want to carve - the best size for carving will range from 2lb (1kg) in weight (just a bit larger than a man's clenched first) up to around 20lb (10kg) in weight (around about the size of a portable TV). It's also easier to carve designs onto pumpkins that have either round sides or flat sides - try not to get one with misshapen sides. It's also good to make sure it sits properly on a flat surface - if it rocks, your Jack O'Lantern won't stand still! Once you've picked your pumpkin, you need to decide what design to carve into it.
In times past, you'd have to come up with your own design, but it got easier! In recent years there has been a mass proliferation of "pumpkin stencils" available on websites and in shops, which you can print out and stick to a pumpkin with sticky tape to use as a guide for carving. Here at Fresh Food Central, we carve our pumpkins like this, and later on in this article is a collection of links to other websites that provide some of the best stencils we've found. We'll be doing our pumpkins like this, and we'll get some pictures of ours online when we've done them!
Where can you get a pumpkin from? Take a look around - from the middle of October they pop up everywhere - farm shops, supermarkets, DIY stores, fruit and vegetable or produce markets… where you get it from depends how big a pumpkin you want. Supermarkets (in the UK at least) don't generally sell pumpkins over the 6kg (12 pound) size mark, but farm shops or local shops sometimes will. Of course you can always grow it yourself too - and we'll have a full article up on pumpkins with growing tips in time for you to grow them next year.
So - you've got your pumpkin, and your design… let's get carving! First of all, you need to hollow out the pumpkin - and this is probably one of the messiest things you'll ever do in your entire life, so kids, get some help, because you need knives for this. We'll put up some pictures of how to do this soon too.
First, cut a circle around the stem, and cut the lid off the pumpkin. You'll need to cut into the pumpkin at an angle to do this without breaking the lid - which you need to put back on later. You need to use a back and forth sawing or slicing motion to cut through the pumpkin here, because the skin is hard and tough.
Once you've taken the top off, remember to scrape any seeds off it, and keep the pulp (the creamy-orange coloured flesh) to make a pumpkin pie with later! Now comes the messy part.
Pumpkins aren't solid - they usually have a hollow cavity inside them to start with, where all the seeds grow. You'll find the seeds mixed with lots of stringy fibres which hold them in place - and this mixture, which we'll affectionately call "goop", is what you need to scrape out first.
This is going to get messy!
Hold a large spoon as close to the bowl of the spoon as you can - you'll get more leverage and scooping power, and start scraping out all the "goop". You can throw this away, or save the seeds - you can either grow the seeds, or wash and clean them, dry them, then roast them in the oven and eat them!
Once you've scraped out the goop, you need to scrape out the pulp. The walls of the pumpkin will be fairly thick at this stage, and you need to make them thinner and easier to cut through to carve. Also, this pulp is what goes into the pumpkin pie, so you want to scrape out as much as you can, while still leaving enough to make the walls strong enough to carve. There'll usually be lots of thready fibres still attached to the pulp, and you need to get rid of as much of this as possible, because it's not very nice in your pie.
You should be able to carry on scooping out the pulp with a spoon, or you can get special pumpkin carving kits to help. Ideally, you want the walls no more than half an inch (1cm) thick to carve - the thicker they are, the harder it is to carve. It's difficult to tell how thick the wall is, but if you draw your design on the front, you can very carefully push a pin through the wall of the pumpkin in one of the places where you need to cut out the wall, and see how much of the pin comes through.
When you've scraped out all the "goop" and the pulp, you can start transferring your design on. Either use a felt tip pen to carefully (and lightly) draw your design on, or tape a stencil design onto the pumpkin. If you tape a stencil on, you may need to cut the paper inwards on the corners (see image) to help it sit on a round pumpkin.
There is no right way to carve a pumpkin - but lots of wrong ways. If you're using sharp knives - BE CAREFUL! Take everything slowly, and don't make sharp movements. You can get pumpkin carving kits with plastic knives in, but you need a thin walled pumpkin to use most of these, so you'll probably need help from an adult if you aren't one already! You can use small kitchen knives, larger knives, or my favourite, a craft knife.
The way I usually go about carving a pumpkin stencil is to tape it onto the pumpkin, then I get either a pin or a craft knife, and carefully go around all of the design, poking through the stencil and into the pumpkin flesh. If you do this well enough, when you then take the stencil off the surface, you'll see a bunch of tiny holes or cuts in the surface of the pumpkin - these cuts usually get slightly darker because of the moisture seeping out, although you may need to angle it towards a bright light to see this. Now, it's just a matter of joining up these small cuts, and cutting the pieces out of the pumpkin.
Take it one piece at a time, and be careful to cut all the way through the pumpkin wall for the piece you are currently carving. When you've cut all the way around, you may need to give the piece a prod from the front or the back to force it out of the hole, then clean up the edges of the hole using a craft knife - again, this is where adults can come in handy.
If you are old and responsible enough to use a craft knife - you can do some really intricate designs. If not, you can do some really cool designs still using regular knives - there's a design to suit everyone, you've just got to find it.
You can make your designs even more strange by cutting part way through the pumpkin wall - this is usually done by cutting the skin off from the outside, but not completely cutting through the pulp of the wall. Because you take off the hardest and thickest part, the outside wall, when you light a candle and put it in the pumpkin, the wall then becomes translucent - it lets some of the light through but not all of it, kind of like when you put your hand in front of your face to shade yourself from the sun, you can see some light coming through your fingers (it's called sub-surface scattering if you really want to know!). If you do this, you can vary the amount of light coming through and have more than light or no light to your designs, and get them really detailed.
When you've finished, if you gently brush the cut edges of your pumpkin with cooking oil, it'll preserve it and make it last longer - just make sure it dries before you put a candle in there or you'll have a slightly toasted pumpkin! When that's dry, pop a small candle in, light it, and put it somewhere it can spook the whole neighbourhood, like a window or a ledge, to scare off those pesky trick or treaters!
Scare the neighbours!
If you're just starting out and this is your first time, some of the sites below will have some stencils for you. If you're an expect and looking for a challenge, you'll find something too, and if not, try Googling "pumpkin stencils" - there's plenty of free ones out there.
Pumpkin Stencil Maker
Lots of Free Stencils
The Pumpkin Lady TM
When you've carved your pumpkin, don't forget to make some delicious pumpkin pie out of the pulp. You can find some recipes Here.
So you've got your pumpkin, your stencils, and your carving tips… get carving! When you've finished your pumpkin, take a picture of it - if you send us a picture, to email@example.com, we'll put them up here for all to see. What are you waiting for, Halloween?
- Extreme Pumpkins - Extreme Pumpkins
- Pumpkin Art Gallery - Pumpkin Art Gallery
- EHow to Carve Pumpkins - EHow to Carve Pumpkins
- Pumpkin Nook - Pumpkin Nook
- Pumpkin Gutter - Pumpkin Gutter
- Pumpkin Patch - Pumpkin Patch
- Pumpkin Carving 101 - Pumpkin Carving 101
- Pumpkin Fun for Kids - Pumpkin Fun for Kids
- Pumpkins and More - Pumpkins and More
- Wikipedia Article on Pumpkins - Wikipedia Article on Pumpkins
- Wikipedia Article on Halloween - Wikipedia Article on Halloween
- Wikipedia Article on Jack O'Lanterns - Wikipedia Article on Jack O'Lanterns
- The Pumpkin Lady (TM) - The Pumpkin Lady (TM)