Family Halloween Fun: Carving a Jack-O-Lantern Pumpkin (for first-timers)

FAMILY FUN IN NJ: Not only is the Fall season big here in the US but at the centre of most Fall activities seems to be the unlikely vegetable hero, the ‘pumpkin’. This vegetable is seen everywhere at the moment in New Jersey (NJ), as a decorative item on front porches, in shop windows and indoors, and as a food ingredient in muffins, bread, pies, and even in ice-cream.

One of the most prominent roles of the pumpkin though, is its association with Halloween, which even countries outside North America such as Australia are familiar with. The iconic Jack-O-Lantern pumpkin is synonymous with Halloween and nowhere more than here in NJ. The origin of the ‘Jack-O-Lantern’ comes reportedly from an Irish tale about ‘Stingy Jack'[pronounced ‘stin-gee’]; an unsavoury character who eventually becomes doomed to wander in the dark, using as his only light source, an ember burning in a carved out potato or turnip (freely available in Ireland in those times). You can read more about this strange tale at It is thought that the story of Stingy Jack was imported into America with Irish immigrants who must have converted the idea to the readily-available, local pumpkin. A great market development idea for any pumpkin farmer I would assume!

During the weeks before Halloween, one of the fun activities you can do as a family, is to carve your own Jack-O-Lantern pumpkin. Though we are only one week away from Trick or Treat night, we wouldn’t have heard the end of it from our 8 year-old daughter, if we’d missed out on carvin’ pumpkins this Fall! So here is how we went about it.

Many of the things you can use to carve your pumpkin, you will have at home already. All you will need is:

·         a decent sized pumpkin,

·         a sheet of letter size paper (to draw your design stencil onto) & a marker pen,

·          a large safety pin or pinwheel (to mark out the design pattern),

·          a sharp knife (e.g. fruit knife),

·         a spoon or ice-cream scoop to scoop out the pumpkin insides,

·         a wide candle to put inside the finished Jack-O-Lantern.


Step 1: Picking a pumpkin: There is no right or wrong pumpkin to choose when it comes to making a Jack-O-Lantern. The main thing is to ensure the pumpkin sits flat and has a relatively smooth, clean surface to carve. There are lots of places to purchase pumpkins from during Fall in NJ. Most local supermarkets sell them but you can also go and pick one at several NJ farms which often offer hayrides and other fun activities that kids will enjoy as typical Fall festivities.

Pumpkin Sale at Millburn Presbyterian Church. Photograph © Anne-Marie Watson 2012


One of the pumpkins purchased from Millburn Presbyterian church. Photograph © Anne-Marie Watson 2012.

My pumpkins were purchased from a church pumpkin sale in Millburn NJ, where they had what seemed like hundreds, littered across their lawn. Many churches have pumpkin sales in the Fall, to raise funds and make pumpkins easily available to parishioners at a reasonable cost. I purchased 2 medium sizes and 2 mini pumpkins for US$15, which was considerably lower priced than those available from the local merchants in Montclair. Our Jack-O-Lantern pumpkin was approximately 32 inches in diameter, and ~12 inches in height.

The other thing to consider when choosing your pumpkin is how the shape will affect the way your design appears on the carving surface available.

Step 2: The design: It is fairly easy to draw your own design, although the mouth can be a bit challenging. My daughter sat down and drew the one we used. She did copy the mouth from our existing Jack-O-Lantern pumpkin light decoration but it is not too hard to do your own.

I noticed that the shape of the eyes seems to largely determine how scary your pumpkin will look. Using simple triangle shapes for the eyes, my daughter drew hers with the triangle base at the bottom, and this produced a set of ‘friendly’ eyes. When you draw the eyes with the triangle turned sideways (base at the side), then the eyes look far more menacing (as our electric pumpkin does). And yes, even more scary than Mr Potato Head’s ‘angry eyes! 

Once the design is drawn, then outline the template with a Texta (or sharpie pen for those in the US).

Step 3: Applying your design to the pumpkin: Cut out the design elements of the eyes, nose and mouth, and sticky tape these to the front of the pumpkin. Take care you don’t have the design too close to the top, to allow room for the top to be cut cleanly later. Using a large safety pin, pinwheel or similar utensil, make a series of holes along the pen outlines, which should go through the paper design onto the pumpkin surface. These should make a series of small perforations  that look like a dotted line on the pumpkin surface, which replicate your design shapes.

We do this instead of drawing the design on the pumpkin with marker pen directly, in case there is an error, and the pen is impossible to wash off. The pin pricking or pinwheeling works well and leaves a clear outline that can later be cut around. If an error is made using the pin method, you may still be able to reuse the pumpkin to draw the design again.

Step 4: Cleaning out the pumpkin: Now comes the messy part. A parent will need to supervise here and assist with using any sharp cutting utensils. Using a sharp fruit knife, cut around the top, in one smooth motion, then remove this portion, as this will be the lid or top of the pumpkin. Keep it aside to use later.

Once the top is removed, then using a large spoon or ice-cream scoop, clean all the inside surface out including pumpkin juice, seeds and other matter. You need to leave at least ½-1 inch thickness inside the pumpkin. It is a good idea to wash the inside out to remove any remaining seeds or mess. Drain the inside well.

Step 5: Carving the design: Once the pumpkin is cleaned out, you can turn it on its side, placing it with the design side up. Using the same sharp knife, start to slowly and carefully cut around the perforated design to remove the pumpkin areas within the eye, nose and mouth outlines.

You may have to do the mouth in small amounts to cut it cleanly and evenly.The mouth is usually the hardest part to cut out, especially if the design is too intricate. Simpler designs are usually easier.

Step 6: Setting Up as a Jack-O-Lantern: Now place a small wide candle inside the pumpkin at the base, light it and place the lid back on. You now have a finished Halloween decoration that is both scary and fun to look at when lit. While my contribution to this family activity was really only buying the pumpkins, I can say we are all really proud of how this turned out. A jolly good job!

Care of the Carved Pumpkin: Like other vegetables, pumpkins can start to rot; especially in warmer weather. To keep your pumpkin fresh until Halloween approaches, don’t leave it lit for any length of time; store it in a clean cool place (even in the fridge if necessary). Remember there is a lot of outdoor wildlife that eat pumpkins including squirrels, so don’t leave it out overnight; otherwise you may end up with a damaged lantern. After Halloween, this is one way though of getting rid of the pumpkin before it rots.

Other Pumpkin Carving: If the Jack-O-Lantern is too tame for you, there are plenty of books with stencils for more outlandish designs. These can be obtained at many supermarkets and household stores. You may also notice special pumpkin carving tools on sale around Halloween time, which may come in handy for the complex designs that can be chosen. In my opinion, for a simple design such as the Jack-O-Lantern, if you just have the sharp knife and something to clean the pumpkin out with, you really don’t need any other fancy tools.

Hopefully, if you are new to this activity, it will become a favorite annual event – something which now looks like becoming one of our family traditions in years to come!

One thought on “Family Halloween Fun: Carving a Jack-O-Lantern Pumpkin (for first-timers)

  1. If you are so inclined you can keep the pumpkin seeds and roast them in the oven. Makes a tasty snack.

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