How can I Make a Jack O' Lantern?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A jack o' lantern is a hollowed out pumpkin with a light inside, associated most commonly with Halloween, a holiday celebrated on the night before All Soul's Day. Many examples of the jack o' lantern are intricately carved to create vivid and amazing designs, and they can be found decorating the stoops of houses across America. Some celebrants enjoy throwing slightly rotten jack o' lanterns from high places and observing the resultant splatter pattern, and numerous communities have jack o' lantern carving contests on Halloween.


The tradition of the jack o' lantern appears to stem from an Irish folktale about a stingy man named Jack, who trapped the Devil with a trick. The Devil pled for release, and canny Jack only agreed to let the Devil go if the Devil promised not to let him into Hell when his time came. When Jack died, he was rejected from Heaven for being cruel and stingy, and not admitted into Hell because of his previous arrangement with the Devil. Afraid of wandering in the dark forever, Jack carved out a turnip, put a light in it, and used it to search for a resting place.

Although the jack o' lantern now features a pumpkin, older versions used any squash or root vegetable. Pumpkins are well suited to the task, because they are roughly ovoid in shape and contain a large amount of pulp that is easy to remove. The term “jack o' lantern” was also used in the 17th century to refer to a night watchman, who also traditionally carried a large lantern to light his way through the night.

Jack o' lanterns can be fun projects for children, although adult supervision is recommended. All ages can find entertainment in making jack o' lanterns, however. To make a jack o' lantern, select a nicely sized pumpkin with an even shape. Cut the top of the pumpkin off, using the remaining stem as a handle for the “lid” of the pumpkin. Some jack o' lantern carvers prefer to take out the bottom, leaving the top uncut for aesthetic purposes.

Next, scoop out the seeds and pith. The seeds can be salted and toasted for tasty snacks. Depending upon the desired effect, some carvers cut out some of the flesh as well, which will lend a more translucent appearance to the resulting jack o' lantern.

Some carvers prefer to free-hand designs in the pumpkin with a carving knife, while others like to map out the plan with a pen on the outside of the pumpkin. Some sophisticated carvers generate designs on their computer and project, glue, or trace them onto the pumpkin's surface. A well sharpened knife is advisable for pumpkin carving, to prevent frustration and accidents.

For fine detail work, tools like those used to work clay are extremely useful. Some carvers also use electric tools such as a Dremel to drill, abrade, or cut the pumpkin's surface. Those who desire a fancier jack o' lantern can translate photographs and paintings to the pumpkin medium by carving out varying amounts of flesh to provide depth and tone.

After carving, insert a candle or electric bulb into the pumpkin, illuminate it, and enjoy the results. Carving touch ups may be required once the jack o' lantern has been seen lit.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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