Pumpkin Carving History and How To Tips

Pumpkin Carving History and How To Tips

Everything you need to know about where Ol' Smilin' Jack came from and how you can create the best, carved Halloween pumpkins ever!

The History of Pumpkin Carving


That brightly colored, grinning gourd you carve each year in order to greet your trick or treaters actually has quite the back-story. In order to get to the roots of Jack's remarkable past, you have to go many years back into history. Over 2000 years ago in ancient Celtic Ireland, a unique and treasured celebration was taking place annually. Samhain was a festival held each fall in order to honor and pay homage to the pagan gods of the harvest. Samhain was a time for the local villagers to celebrate, to show gratitude for life's bounties and to welcome in the winter months. Samhain was also a time of great mysticism and many superstitions were quite pervasive during the Samhain revelry. Many somewhat credulous ideas were running rampant during the time period surrounding Samhain. It was a common belief that the souls of the newly deceased would be able to return to the earth and intermingle with the living during this time. Because of this belief, there were many fears and misgivings about the possibility of evil spirits being around with potentially sinister intentions. Many common Samhain traditions evolved from this fear of the dead returning to haunt the living. One of these traditions was that of carving scary faces into practical lanterns.

The first Jack-O-Lanterns weren't crafted from pumpkins at all, but were actually made from more readily available plant items like turnips and rutabagas. Turnips could be easily hollowed out and then carved with grimacing faces to be used as lanterns during Samhain. These lanterns were thought to ward off evil spirits and so to the local villagers, the use of them was far more practical than it was decorative. The spooky lanterns were placed in windows and in doorways and could also be carried around to light one's way on a dark and unlit path.

The tradition of carving scary faces into turnips, potatoes, beets and other vegetables became a part of Celtic Irish custom that was passed on from generation to generation over the course of many passing centuries. When the Irish immigrants eventually migrated to America hundreds of years later, they brought their traditions, folklore and customs along with them. Although there had not been many pumpkins growing naturally in their native European homeland, in America these colorful gourds were now plentiful and were found in rich abundance. The pumpkin quickly became an obvious and favorite choice for the creation of these traditional All Hallows Eve lanterns.

The Legend of Stingy Jack

Stingy JackThe tradition of carved Halloween lanterns goes thousands of years into history, as does the legendary tale of how the Jack-o-Lantern got his infamous name. Although there are several variations on the legend itself, the basic theme of the tale is essentially the same. The story of the Jack-o-Lantern all revolves around a very notorious fellow named Jack. Jack was well known in his village for being a quite cantankerous drunkard as well as being very miserly. Jack fully lived up to his moniker, and thus was known around his own town as "Stingy Jack". In addition to being constantly drunk and flagrantly cheap, Stingy Jack had a penchant for pranks, and loved to play them on the fellow villagers and neighbors. One day, as Jack wandered about town in his usual drunken state, he happened upon the devil. Feeling a bit of mutually evil respect for one another, the duo decided to go and have a drink together inside of a local pub. The devil enjoyed seeing Jack imbibe more and more ale and watched intently as Jack drunk himself further and further into near oblivion. In spite of his inebriated state, Jack was still Jack and when it came time to pay for all the drinks, he wasn't too happy about being stuck with the bill, so he quickly hatched a clever plan that he hoped would fool even the devil.

Jack convinced the devil to transform his self into a silver coin, which Jack could then use to pay the tab. The devil complied. Jack, however had more malevolent plans and pocketed the coin and walked right out of the bar. He put a crucifix in his pocket along with the coin, which negated the devil's powers, making it virtually impossible for him to transform himself back into his devilish self. Jack then took the opportunity to make a deal with the devil. He told the devil he wanted him to promise to keep him out of hell for 10 years. The devil was all too happy to make this deal with Jack and gave him his word that Jack would not be allowed into hell for 10 years.

Ten years went by very quickly and Jack learned little from his constant stream of mistakes, continuing to live a life of mean spiritedness, and miserly drunkenness. Fellow villagers did everything in their power to avoid Jack as his reputation for evil had become almost legendary; so much so that when the ten year pact with the devil was up, the devil was very anxious and all too happy to come back and claim Jack's soul and take him straight into hell. Jack, being scared silly of going to hell, in spite of his apparent embrace of all things evil, once again tried desperately to trick the devil. Standing adjacent to an apple tree, Jack meekly asked the devil if before they went into hell if he could please have an apple off of the tree to appease his growing hunger. The devil agreed, but obviously Jack was far too drunk to climb the tree, so the devil himself had to climb the branches of the tree to obtain a shiny red apple for Jack to eat before he journeyed into hell.

Here's an example of a very creative pumpkin carving!

Getting the devil to climb to the top of the tree was all a big part of Jack's evil plan. Once the devil was near the top of the leafy branches, Jack surrounded the tree with religious symbols and crosses, once again making it impossible for the devil to navigate at all, let alone get safely out of the tree. Jack approached the helpless devil with another one of his vile transaction ideas. This time, Jack made the devil promise him that he would never, under any circumstances take his soul into the depths of hell. This arrangement had no expiration date this time and would in fact, be in effect for all eternity.

The devil agreed and Jack allowed him to come down from the tree. Jack went on his way, but made no effort to change his ways. In fact, his corrupt and crooked lifestyle became even further exacerbated as he aged. Eventually, Jack became very old and because of his many years of hard living, he succumbed readily to death. As Jack's soul approached St. Peter's pearly gates, he was not allowed to enter into heaven as his life had been egregiously wicked. Jack had no choice but to seek refuge behind the gates of hell and so that is where he went next. The devil, however, took great delight in honoring his promise with Jack and wouldn't allow him into hell, either. Jack was dismayed to learn that he would not have final repose anywhere, and that in fact; it would be Jack's destiny to wander the earth for eternity with nowhere to rest. The devil seeing how dismayed Jack was, threw him an eternally burning ember that Jack was able to insert into a hollowed out turnip in order to light his way on his eternal journey and in so doing, the first "Jack-o-Lantern" had been created.

Selecting that Perfect Pumpkin For Carving

Pumpkin CarvingWhen it comes time to select that perfect pumpkin to create your Jack-o-Lantern, there are several things to keep in mind. First of all, you will want to make sure your pumpkin is fully ripe. This is particularly important if you are growing your own or are buying one from a local farmer's market. One way to tell if your pumpkin is fully ripe is to feel it for firmness. You don't want your pumpkin to feel soft. You want the skin of your pumpkin to be hard, but you also want to keep in mind that you will need to be able to cut through the skin with a knife or a carving tool. Some varieties of pumpkins (or if you are using a different type of gourd for your Jack-o-Lantern) have very thick/hard skins that might be more difficult to carve. Some pumpkins might also have very thick skin walls. These hard skinned, thick-walled pumpkins can often be recognized by an unusual heaviness for size. Very thick-walled pumpkins are not only harder to carve, but once the carved pumpkin is lit, they don't illuminate the Jack-o-Lantern's details as nicely as thinner walled pumpkins do. Although it is possible to thin out the pumpkin walls with a scraper, sometimes it's just easier to avoid this altogether by looking for a lighter weight pumpkin that will be easier to carve and will ultimately make a much better Jack-o-Lantern.

There are many sizes, shapes and varieties of pumpkins to choose from for making your Jack-o-Lanterns and they don't necessarily have to be orange! Some very interesting and cool Jack-o-Lanterns can be created using blue, green or even white pumpkins. Gourds or other varieties of squash can also be used for making your own special version of Jack, adding a novel twist on an old tradition.

Here are some important tips to keep in mind when making your pumpkin selection:

  • Make sure your pumpkin has a slightly hollow sound when you tap it gently. Try and avoid pumpkins that seem overly heavy.
  • Choose a pumpkin that has at least a 2" stem. Do NOT carry or hold your pumpkin by the stem, however as it is not meant to be a handle and could very easily break off.
  • Make sure your pumpkin has a smooth skin and has no bruises or any evidence of rotting.
  • Tall and slender pumpkins make fantastic Jack-o-Lanterns, but do tend to have stringier innards inside.
  • Make sure your pumpkin has enough of a base so that it can sit nicely without rolling or toppling over. This is particularly true if you intend to light your pumpkin with a candle.
  • If you want to light your pumpkin with actual candles, it's best to have a pumpkin that is a minimum of 9" tall. Pumpkin lights possibly could be an option for some smaller pumpkins, but you will want to make sure that they will fit inside.

Carving Tools and Techniques

Once you have that perfect pumpkin selected, now it's time to carve. Before you begin the carving process, however, you need to assemble your tools and get your workspace ready. Pumpkin carving is very messy. A little bit of preparation for the slimy, gooey mess can go a long way when it comes to cleaning up later on. First of all, you will want to cover your table or other flat work area with newspaper. Get your pumpkin carving tools ready to go. The pumpkin carving essentials that you will need are:

  • Large bowls to put the removed pumpkin innards into.
  • Pumpkin scraper
  • Serrated pumpkin carving knife or paring knife
  • Smaller serrated pumpkin carving knives for smaller details
  • Pattern
  • Water soluble fine tip marker
  • Pumpkin poking tool
  • Scary music DVD to play in the background--it's a fun way to get into the Halloween spirit!
  • Flashlight to "test" your design

Pumpkin CarvingThe first step in your pumpkin carving process is to take a look at your pumpkin and get to know him a little bit. Decide which side is his "good" side and would make the best place to carve his face. Your pumpkin is bound to appreciate your willingness to put his best face forward! Next, you will need to make a decision as to how you want to cut your pumpkin open, if you want to have a traditional top "lid" or if you want the opening in your Jack-o-Lantern to be hidden in the bottom of your pumpkin. Some of the more advanced pumpkin carving designs might be better suited for having the hole cut unobtrusively in the bottom side of the pumpkin. If you are doing a more traditional Jack-o-Lantern pattern (for example, with triangle eyes and a toothy grin) a hexagon or cleverly cut lid (hat) on top may be the perfect choice. It's all a matter of personal preference. When you are getting ready to cut out your opening in your pumpkin, draw the hole onto the pumpkin skin first with the water-soluble marker. This is particularly important if you are cutting your lid into a specific shape or design. It's very important that you make sure that your opening is large enough so that once the lid or hole is removed, you can easily fit your hand inside the pumpkin in order to remove the seeds and other pumpkin guts. Give yourself plenty of room for this task because you will need to use a pumpkin scraper (or a large metal spoon) to get all the slimy strands thoroughly removed.

After carefully cutting the lid or hole opening into your pumpkin (ahhhh, smell that wonderful pumpkin aroma!) it's time to remove the seeds and the other slimy stuff that is inside the pumpkin. You may want to save the pumpkin seeds for roasting later, as these make a delicious seasonal snack that is very fun to munch on. The rest of the slimy stuff from inside your pumpkin can be placed into the bowls that you have assembled. Carefully use your pumpkin scraper to scrape the sides of the inner walls of the pumpkin to remove all the goo and remaining slippery strands. It's a messy job, but it's all part of the fun!

Once you have your pumpkin's guts completely removed, take a look at the thickness of your pumpkins walls. Are they thicker than one inch? A very thick-walled pumpkin is very hard to carve, especially if you are tackling a very detailed design. Your pumpkin scraping tool can be used along with a little muscle to scrape down the insides of the pumpkin's walls to make them a little bit thinner if necessary. There is a bit of work involved here, but once you start the carving process you will soon discover that having the pumpkin walls a bit thinner will make the carving a lot easier.


The next step is to transfer the desired design onto your pumpkin and get it ready for carving (examples of printable pumpkin stencils to consider) and here are some general Halloween stencil examples. Simple designs can be drawn onto the front side of the pumpkin directly with the fine tip water-soluble marker. If your pattern is a little more complicated, you might want to tape your design to the pumpkin itself and then use a pumpkin poking tool that will punch small holes into the pumpkin's flesh, transferring the design for easy carving. These simple to use poking tools allow even the most novice carver to transfer a very intricate design into the pumpkin's skin that can then be carved out with some of the smaller serrated pumpkin knives. Once you have your pattern placed onto your pumpkin, you are ready to carve. Start at the center of your design and work your way outward, choosing the appropriate tool size for the area you are carving. Pumpkin knives come in various sizes to make the carving process go seamlessly.

If you plan on lighting your pumpkin with real candles, it's a good idea to ventilate the pumpkin in the back with a small smoke hole, which will allow the smoke to escape once the candle is lit.

Once you are finished carving out your Jack-o-Lantern's design, turn off the lights and insert a flashlight into your pumpkin to see how your design has turned out. You will then be able to see if there are any design details that need a little more attention or adjustments. 

Carved pumpkins deteriorate rapidly and there is little you can do long term to prevent this from occurring. Don't make your Jack-o-Lantern too far in advance for this reason, the night before Halloween is ideal. To help preserve a carved pumpkin, you can mist it with diluted lemon juice or spray it with a vegetable oil spray. Wrapping your precious Jack-o-Lantern in a damp towel when he's not on display may help him to last a bit longer as well.

Creating Jack-o-Lanterns is a time-honored Halloween tradition that has been with us for centuries. Jack's illuminated grin continues to light the way for Halloween revelers today just as it did for ancient celebrators many centuries ago. Carving a traditional Jack-o-Lantern is a part of Halloween custom that like many other Halloween rituals has been fully embraced by the masses and is absolutely here to stay. Happy Carving!