On a crisp October afternoon, 12-year-old Katherine Solomon kneels down in the grass in the back yard of her Hudson Valley home and studies the pumpkin she has selected for a Halloween jack-o’-lantern.
After deciding which side is best for carving, Katherine uses a red grease pencil to draw two round eyes, a triangle nose and a mouth full of teeth. After a few minutes of intense concentration, she asks, “Is this right?”
Her father bends down and makes a few minor adjustments to the mouth. Katherine smiles. The face begins to take on the scary appearance she had imagined.
Hollowing out a pumpkin, carving a silly or ghoulish face, and placing a candle inside is a fall tradition for Katherine and her parents Paul Solomon and Lisa Thiesing of Rosendale, N.Y. (pop. 6,352). Each year, they travel to Wallkill View Farms, a family-run, pick-your-own patch in nearby New Paltz, to select pumpkins for the annual ritual.
When Katherine is content with the face she has drawn, her father takes a large carving knife and cuts a circle around the stem in the top of his daughter’s pumpkin. Then comes Katherine’s favorite part. She pulls up the sleeves of her windbreaker, sticks her hand inside the pumpkin and grimaces.
“Ewwwww!” she screams with delight as her fingers touch the cold, slimy pulp, strings and seeds inside. “It’s so messy.”
She scrapes the inside walls of the pumpkin with a plastic tool and dips out the innards with a soup ladle. The family’s black cat, Wizard, switches her tail as Katherine and her parents each go about carving their own jack-o’-lantern.
“I love the goofiness of carving a pumpkin,” says Paul, who majored in art in college. “It’s a chance for a creative outlet with no wrong answers.”
Paul maintains a “jack-o’-lantern box” with appropriate carving tools—cutting saw, poker tool, and caving, paring and serrated knives—which the family uses to sculpt their one-of-a-kind creations.
“What we decide to carve varies greatly from pumpkin to pumpkin,” says Lisa, a writer and illustrator of children’s picture books. “We don’t do many with basic triangle eyes, nose and grinning mouth, though variations of that show up occasionally.”
The entire process takes about an hour, although Paul may spend an entire afternoon working on his artistic creation. On Halloween night, Lisa, Paul and Katherine light the candles in their jack-o’-lanterns on the porch to welcome trick-or-treaters, adding magic to the night.
“I think it’s important to experience this tradition,” Paul says. “It’s a creative family activity and fun to do together.”
The Jack-O’-Lantern Story
To understand the jack-o’-lantern story, it’s important to know the history of Halloween, which has its origins in ancient Celtic religious practices.
On Oct. 31, the Celts celebrated the eve of “The Day of the Dead.” Over the years, with the spread of Christianity, Oct. 31 became Halloween, or All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day.
On All Hallows Eve, glowing lanterns, carved from turnips or gourds, were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones and to ward off evil spirits.
One Irish folk tale tells of a miserly man named Jack who played a trick on the devil. As punishment, Jack was doomed to roam the earth until Judgment Day, carrying a chewed-out turnip glowing with a lump of coal, which the devil had thrown to him to light his way.
When Irish and Scottish immigrants settled in America in the mid-1800s, they brought their Halloween customs with them. In New England, they found pumpkins were more plentiful than turnips and better suited to making jack-o’-lanterns.
Tips for Carving and Lighting a Pumpkin
- Use a red grease pencil for drawing your design, as it doesn’t show after carving.
- When cutting the top opening, cut at a 45-degree angle, so the top won’t fall in as the pumpkin dries out.
- Tea light or votive candles in a clear glass holder last a long time and don’t fall over.
- Use caution when carving a pumpkin with children. A child can scoop out the strings and seeds. An adult should do the cutting.
The pumpkin belongs to the squash family and can be used in breads, pies, puddings, muffins, cookies and soups—or eaten like potatoes, mashed with butter.
Use a small to medium “cooking variety” of pumpkin. First wash the pumpkin, using a vegetable brush to remove caked-on dirt. Then cut the pumpkin in half, crosswise, with a large knife. Your child can help remove the slimy strings and seeds using his hands, an ice cream spade, large spoon and/or soup ladle. Save the seeds if you wish to bake them. (See recipe below.)
Place the pumpkin, shell-side up, in a 9-by-13-inch cake pan or cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for about one hour, or until tender; test with a fork. Scrape pulp from the shell and mash. Put it through a strainer if you like a fine consistency. Pumpkin can be used in recipes or frozen for later use. (See recipe below for pumpkin bread.)
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Rinse seeds in a colander, pat dry, and place on a cookie sheet with 1 tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle with salt. Mix to coat and spread in one layer. Bake in 325-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Stir occasionally while baking. Turn down heat to 250 degrees and bake one hour. Let seeds cool before eating.
- 3 cups sugar
- 1 cup oil
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups pumpkin pulp
- 1/3 cup water
- 3 1/3 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon cloves
Grease and flour two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, stir together sugar and oil. Add eggs, pumpkin and water. Add remaining ingredients and stir until combined. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake 60 to 70 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.