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What is a Jack-o-lantern?

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  • Last Modified Date: 11 August 2014
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A jack-o-lantern is a carved pumpkin used to hold a light. The light glows through the holes in the carving, creating a distinctive glowing image. Jack-o-lanterns are traditionally produced around Halloween in North America, especially in the United States, and various versions of this tradition can be seen in other regions of the world as well. In late October, many North American grocers stock pumpkins in large quantities to meet the demand for pumpkins to carve.

The roots of the jack-o-lantern tradition are quite old. Carved vegetable lanterns have been associated with the harvest season for many generations, and some cultures have a tradition of placing a lantern on the stoop on Halloween, also known as All Hallow's Eve, either to frighten or draw the spirits, depending on cultural values. Carved turnips were popular in Britain and Ireland, while some other European communities favored using brass or tin lanterns.

According to legend, “Jack” is a real person who managed to trick the devil on All Hallow's Eve, although the lantern doesn't figure into all stories. In some tales, the jack-o-lantern is a deceitful fairy or spirit who uses a light to draw people away from a safe path so that they can be attacked. Furthermore, well through the 1700s, night watchmen were known as Jack o' Lanterns, reflecting the use of “Jack” as a generic male name and the fact that watchmen would of course carry lanterns along their routes.

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Typically, a jack-o-lantern is made by cutting the top from a pumpkin, carving out the seeds and stringy material inside, and then carving a pattern into the flesh of the pumpkin. Some people get quite elaborate, shaving off layers of the pumpkin to create layers of shading, and a chimney may be included to draw the heat out of the pumpkin so that it does not rot. Jack-o-lanterns may also be made by painting whole pumpkins, allowing people to extract the flesh of a jack-o-lantern later for use in a pie.

People commonly carve faces onto their jack-o-lanterns, making the eyes, nose, and mouth glow. However, various scenes, abstract designs, and other patterns can be carved into the pumpkin, and some communities hold pumpkin carving contests in which people attempt to come up with the most creative design. Carved pumpkins often adorn the steps, windows, or porches of homes offering Halloween candy, and they are also used as generic decorations in stores and restaurants in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

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Sinbad
Post 8

Is it sad that I am close to 30 and never have carved a pumpkin? I think so! I am determined to make at least one jack-o-lantern for the month of October this year though!

I have painted pumpkins, but never have carved one. I can just imagine the mess and the danger, so I can understand why my parents did not ever do this activity with us. It seems like so much fun though, totally worth whatever mess obtained, I think. Also, accidents can happen regardless of what you are doing, so all anyone can do is be as careful and cautious as possible.

I think for my first jack-o-lantern I will get a stencil of a cute face, and then if that is successful, I will move on up to designing my own jack-o-lantern. This sounds like a fun tradition for anyone and everyone!

starrynight
Post 7

@JessicaLynn - Sometimes small children aren't the ones who need supervising! I went to a lantern carving party a few years ago that was strictly adults. There were vast quantities of booze available, so I'm sure you can imagine what happened next.

Well, I'll tell you. Not one, but TWO people cut themselves so badly they needed stitches. It was a mess! So take heed: alcohol and lantern carving do not mix!

JessicaLynn
Post 6

Jack-o-lantern carving is one of the most fun parts of the whole fall season. But (and I hate to be a spoilsport) it's so easy to get hurt when you're carving a jack-o-lantern.

I think it's very important to follow proper safety procedures, especially if you're going to be carving with young children. I would suggest purchasing some pumpkin carving tools instead of using a kitchen knife. And obviously supervise small children!

SarahSon
Post 5

There are six of us in our family, so every year we go to the pumpkin patch and pick out 6 pumpkins. We then carve these jack-o-lantern faces to resemble each member of the family.

You never know from year to year what creative ideas my kids will come up with. This has become a tradition at our house that my kids look forward to every year.

I have never made any pumpkin desserts from the pumpkins I buy, but I do like to use the seeds. I will dry them, sprinkle with seasonings, and roast them in the oven.

These make a great snack and are good for you as well.

golf07
Post 4

My kids love fall and all the fun activities that go along with it. We have a lot of trees in our yard, and they love to rake up large piles of leaves and jump in them.

We always take a trip to an apple orchard and buy jack-o-lantern pumpkins. They are so excited to get home and start carving their faces.

I went online to get some pattern ideas for them so they could make some different faces. We like to use a pencil to draw the pattern before we begin the carving.

They love putting a candle in them and setting them outside on the front porch at night. We have many memories of making jack-o-lanterns. It can make quite a big mess, but is definitely worth it.

lonelygod
Post 3

There is a jack-o-lantern carving contest in my city every year and it is always really impressive to see what jack-o-lantern pictures people manage to make on the face of a simple pumpkin. Over the years I have seen scenes from horror movies carved, famous actors... you name it!

I think that if you want to practice being good enough for a jack-o-lantern carving contest you should really start by making your own jack-o-lantern templates. One of the easiest things to do is just draw your image on white paper and carefully cut it out. It will make a great pattern for you to follow.

animegal
Post 2

Carving jack-o-lanterns with my friends has always been one of my favorite things about Halloween. Every year we buy jack-o-lantern stencils so we can make some really great designs for our Halloween parties.

Also, if you want stencils for free, you can always download them online and print them out. They aren't as sturdy as purchased stencils, but I find if you take the pumpkin stencil in place it works just fine.

A good tip is that if you are using a stencil you should make sure to trace the design with a washable marker, so you can just wipe off any remaining ink later.

Ivan83
Post 1

My kids love carving jack-o-lanterns. I think they might even like it more than the trick or treating. The minute pumpkins show up in the store in the fall my kids are screaming to buy some. And we usually make a few test lanterns before Halloween actually comes.

My kids are 8 and 10 now and the 10 year old has actually gotten pretty good at carving pumpkins. She makes some preliminary sketches and then practices her design on a few pumpkins before Halloween. By the time the big night rolls around she is ready to carve out a masterpiece. And I have to admit, motherhood aside, her pumpkins look incredible. We always get compliments on them and they put my pumpkin carving efforts to shame. She is just so talented.

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