By Mariam Hayat
The annual tradition of haphazardly stabbing unsuspecting pumpkins is nearly upon us – indeed a staggering 9.5 million pumpkins will be sold throughout the UK for this very purpose. Clearly we Brits take our squash-based emoticons rather seriously.
Not as seriously though, as the ancient Celts; who believed spririts and faeries were believed to be active and the veil between this world and the next became paper-thin during the festival of Samhain (now known as Halloween thanks to some enterprising Christians). Gourds were hollowed out and candles placed inside to create lanterns that guided or deflected the returning spirits depending on how much you wanted to see your dead gran. This practice occurred all over Britain; the Irish used turnips and the Scots used the delightfully Harry Potter sounding ‘mangelwurzels’.
When the Irish emigrated to America they took their carving obsession with them and discovered that the New World had the perfect fruit to satisfy their spirit scarecrow needs – the pumpkin. The completed lanterns were called ‘Jack-O-Lanterns’, named after a particularly roguish, permanently drunk blacksmith of Irish folklore: Stingy Jack. The legend goes that after spending the day lazing around under an apple tree, the Devil suddenly appeared to Jack, intent on taking his soul down to hell. Jack managed to convince a very obliging Satan to climb up and get him an apple; he then quickly carved a cross into the trunk of the tree so that the Devil (who must have been cursing his angelic relapse) could not climb down unless he promised that he would not take Jack’s soul. This was done but upon Jack’s death he was rejected from Heaven by Saint Peter and he could not go to Hell , so the Devil – still not getting the whole ‘heartlessly evil’ thing – tossed him an ever-burning ember which Jack placed inside a hollowed out turnip with which he restlessly wonders the world, looking for a final resting place.
The pumpkin carving craze transferred over to Britain in the late 19th century; in 1899 the British author Sir Quiller-Couch recounts in the Cornish Magazine how a group of mischievous youngsters lowered a carved pumpkin into a chimney. When the residents started to be irritated by the trapped smoke, one woman looked up the chimney, beheld the ghoulish face above and promptly “shrieked and went into hysterics”. Clearly, they were simpler times.
Indiscriminately causing cardiac arrests may have gone out of fashion but carving macabre pumpkins hasn’t. Follow the tips below for your very own Pinterest-perfect pumpkin. Happy carving!
• To prepare the pumpkin, cut a hole at the top of the pumpkin (large enough to fit your hand through). Make sure that the knife is angled at 45 degrees to the lid; this will become the ‘lid’ of your pumpkin.
• Use a large metal spoon to remove its innards, scraping the inside clean so there are no ‘stringy bits’
• Draw or print a pattern on to a piece of paper, cut slits on the top and bottom (so you can fit it around the spherical pumpkin more easily) and tape the design on. Use a screwdriver or compass to mark out the design.
• Take the paper off and cut the pieces out.
• Place a tealight inside. Set light to one end of a dry spaghetti; you can use this to light the tealight inside of your pumpkin.
• Place the lid on to the pumpkin, turn off the lights and enjoy your fiendish creation!
• Prepare the pumpkin as above; you can use dry-wipe markers to draw a pattern directly on to the pumpkin – simply erase and start again if you’re not happy with the design.
• Use a vegetable peeler to remove skin, use lino cutters and craft knifes to have finer control over your sculpting.
• The flesh of the pumpkin is thin in ‘highlighted’ areas and thick in shadow areas. Carefully scrape away flesh to create ‘gradients’ of thicker to thinner flesh which will create realistic shading.
• You can also add variations e.g. I stuck some pipeliners into my pumpkin to make ‘eyelashes’.
Photographs by Mariam Hayat and Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr