The jack-o'-lantern is an icon of fall festivals and fun. Set out on a stoop or windowsill, a carved pumpkin face with a glow inside is one of the most recognized symbols of Halloween. But how did "Jack" become the face of the holiday?
Halloween dates back thousand of years to the ancient festival of Samhain, celebrated by the Celtics. Throughout Britain and Ireland, there has also been a long tradition of carving turnips and gourds and using them as lanterns, although it wasn't specifically associated with Halloween until 1866.
For the origin of the name, Irish folklore tells the tale of Stingy Jack, a farmer who used a cross to trap the devil. Although there are different versions of how the devil is captured, in the story Jack offers to let the devil go if he promises not to take his soul. When Jack dies, he can't get into heaven, but he is not allowed in hell either due to the promise. Trapped on earth, the devil gives him an ember from hell that burns forever. Jack then carves a turnip, puts the ember inside and began wandering the earth for a resting place. Hence, he became "Jack of the lantern."
Halloween has since become a time when children dress as goblins and ghosts and go from house to house. In America, people carve pumpkins instead of turnips and they have become representative of Halloween fun.
To choose the perfect pumpkin to carve, look at size first. "It is best to pick a pumpkin that grows to a medium size for carving," Kristin Grilli of the Burpee Seed Company said. "Small pumpkins can be difficult to carve, and the skin on super-sized pumpkins could be too thick. You can't go wrong with a medium-sized pumpkin. Some folks prefer that their pumpkin be a bit oblong in shape for additional carving ease."
If you plan to grow your own pumpkin, "You should check the directions on the back of the seed pack, but typically it would be 110 days, or 3 1/2 months, in advance," she added.
Commercially-packed pumpkin carving kits often contain mini saws, thin blades, scoops and patterns. You can use them, but all you really need is a long, thin, sharp blade, a large tablespoon or ice cream scoop, a pencil, a piece of paper and your imagination. You can draw the face directly onto the pumpkin with the pencil, but you risk damaging the skin. Instead, use a washable marker or crayon or draw a face onto the paper and transfer the design.
Using the blade, cut a circular hole into the top or bottom of the pumpkin. Be sure to point the blade into the center so the wedge shape will keep the cap, or bottom, from falling into the pumpkin. Cutting the top will make it easier for the heat of a candle or bulb to escape, while cutting the hole in the bottom will make access for a wired bulb easier.
Hollow out the inside of the pumpkin with the spoon or other scoop. Save the innards for delicious recipes or dry the seeds for healthy snacking. Scrape the inside dry without gouging the skin. Using the point of the blade, make a hole in the center of the shape and cut towards the outline. A mini saw may be more tedious and time consuming, but it is more accurate than a straight blade.
Pumpkins can be cleaned a day before -- cover the pumpkin with plastic wrap and store in a cool place, or a refrigerator if it is small enough.
You can prolong the life of your cut pumpkin (average life is one day to one week) by using a votive candle instead of a long taper candle or a low-wattage bulb. There are commercial products to spray your pumpkin with to extend its life, or you can simply rub petroleum jelly over the cut surfaces to keep it from losing moisture.