Whether you're outfitting the house for a party, preparing for trick-or-treaters, decorating a fall carnival or festival, or all of the above, pumpkins and Jack-o-Lanterns are one of the most iconic (and fun!) parts of the Halloween season.
Making Jack-o-Lanterns and decorated pumpkins is a great time to (literally) get your hands dirty and celebrate the season in style, and is a neat way to involve your kids in party prep, house decorations, etc. Before you get out that carving knife this year, check out some of the ideas and tips below to spice up your design ideas and possibly create something new and different.
THE STORY BEHIND JACK-O-LANTERNS
According to many sources, the tradition of the Jack-o-Lantern comes from an Irish folktale about a thief named Stingy Jack, a man so quick and clever that he tricked the Devil himself into promising not to take his soul. However, because Jack's bad deeds prevented him from entering Heaven when he died, he was left to aimlessly roam the earth forever, with only a carved out turnip holding a fiery ember to light his way. The tale arose from the need to explain mysterious "ghost lights" (also called fairy lights, hinkypunks, will-o'-the-wisps, fool's fire, and many other names) that would appear above peat bogs, swamps, and marshes. We now know that these lights come from the ignition of gases from decomposing plant matter as they combine with oxygen, but for hundreds of years people truly believed them to be wandering spirits.
Source: Today I Found Out
This time of year, people would carve lanterns out of turnips, beets, gourds, potatoes, and other things and light a candle in them to keep the lost spirits away. When Irish immigrants came to America and were introduced to pumpkins (which did not grow in Ireland), they realized they were easier to carve (and bigger) than many of the other options, and the modern Jack-o-Lantern was born.
These days, we're less worried about wandering spirits and more concerned about an unplanned trip to the ER. When doing your own carving activities, make sure you take precautions such as keeping your hands dry, only letting adults do the cutting, and using proper tools to help avoid accidents. There is a spike in emergency room visits this time of year (all those slippery pumpkins + knives = meeting your health insurance deductible), so check out this article from the American Society for Surgery of the Hand for some good safety tips. Remember that even though the kids will inevitably want to be involved, it is absolutely appropriate to set a rule that they don't handle the knives or other carving tools. When I was young, pumpkin carving time was serious business-- we (the kids) each made a drawing for how we wanted out pumpkin to look and scooped out its seeds, our mom transferred our 2-D designs onto the 3-D pumpkin surfaces and baked the pumpkin seeds as a snack (sample recipe here), and our dad did the carving. It was a wonderful, creative, and safe family activity (and a memory I highly cherish to this day).
USE LETTERS AND NUMBERS
Not all pumpkins have to have faces or shapes; sometimes it can be something as simple as carving a letter on each to spell out a word (ex: BOO!), using your family's last name, your house number, etc. To learn how to carve letters like the one below, see Better Homes & Garden's tutorial here.
TRY A MULTI-PUMPKIN DESIGN
Involving multiple pumpkins as an interactive design can be quite impressive (and entertaining), as with this monster / cannibal pumpkin from Flair:
Or this Angler Fish pumpkin by David Arsenault:
USE A DRILL
If you want to speed up your carving time and create cleaner circles / curves, consider using a drill for designs like this one from Crafty Nest (remember to thoroughly clean your drill and bits afterward, or later on you'll be dealing with quite the sticky, smelly mess!)
Artificial pumpkins like Funkins (made from 1/2-inch low–density polyurethane foam), are light, fairly durable, can be kept outside, and will last...well...forever. They are an excellent option if you want to make intricate designs like the Tinkerbell pumpkin below by Luis Linares on Instructables (complete with a trail of pixie dust). Because they don’t go bad, you can use your artificial pumpkin creations for house / party decor year after year (and / or could combine them with some real pumpkins you decorate with the kids or on your own). They're also lighter than real pumpkins, so they make a good option if you need to transport them to a festival or party (just make sure you weigh them down on the inside if it's windy). Note: these are made of foam, so NO candles-- artificial lights will do just fine and create much less of a fire hazard.
USE A COOKIE CUTTER
Using cookie cutter(s) is a neat hack to help create and execute your pumpkin's design-- you can press more lightly for just the outline to glow, or you can use a mallet as outlined on Refinery 29 to help push all the way through the pumpkin (if you're going this route, make sure to take your time and be extra cautious.)
DO A 'DO
Adding a wig, Spanish moss, or other plants to create hair can create some amusing results, such as these hairy-scary pumpkins featured on Woman's Day:
Or this witch pumpkin from Extreme Pumpkins:
CLEAN OUT THE JUNK DRAWER
Ever wondered what you can do with those broken crayon pieces, buttons, and random screws in the junk drawer? Consider melting the crayons for a pumpkin bursting with color like this Crayon Drip Pumpkin from Swell Designer (see their how-to tutorial here):
or using all those odds and ends to create a junk drawer pumpkin like this one from Family Chic:
Whatever your design, method, or tools, decorating your pumpkins (either solo or with your kids) is one of the best parts of celebrating Halloween. So go pick out a pumpkin, do some brainstorming, gather your materials, and let your imagination go wild!