Learn about the history of Halloween and the pumpkin carving tradition

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Why do people carve pumpkins at Halloween?

Posted by Luci Ackers on Oct 20, 2016

Pumpkin carving this Halloween with Lantern & Larks. 

As the final week of October rolls around we have an ideal excuse to get a little bit messy and very creative...

Whether you're looking for a half term activity with the little ones, or just fancy getting stuck into the holiday spirit, you can guarantee a night of pumpkin carving will be good fun! And at Lantern & Larks we are again providing free pumpkins on site for you to have some fun this Halloween.

Carving pumpkins has become synonymous with October's spooky holiday season. Shops are selling them and streets come alive with their flickering designs decorating doors and windows. But have you ever wondered where this creative tradition stems from?

You may be surprised to learn that pumpkin carving is a pastime that actually long predates the rise in popularity of Halloween.

So where did Halloween come from?

Though some say Halloween originated as a wholly Christian holiday, it is thought by many to actually be rooted in the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain. Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It took place over the 24 hours between sunset on 31st October and sunset on the 1st November. Ancient people believed that this was an ideal time of year for supernatural beings to roam the earth, being roughly half way between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice; a very mystical time of year when the boundaries of our world could supposedly be easily crossed.

It's possible that this old Celtic festival merged with religious ideas following the rise of Christianity in England, and that's where the current name stems from. The 8th century saw Pope Gregory III move All Saints' Day to the 1st November, which happened to fall on Samhain. Christianity in the Western world still observes All Saints' Day, and Halloween is a contraction of the phrase 'All Hallows' Eve' – a 'hallow' being a holy being or spirit: literally 'the evening of all the spirits'. The term can be traced back to the 16th century though it was around the 18th century that the contraction 'Halloween' first appeared.

And what's with the pumpkin?

Why is this big orange gourd so innate to Halloween? Well, the short answer is that it isn't!

Hundreds of years ago the practice of carving gourds for lanterns was quite common place. The scary faces that could be created out of them were used to scare people and travellers at night. And this wasn't unheard of in England even as late as the 1700s.

It is thought that using carved turnips during Halloween originated in Ireland. If spirits were wandering during All Hallows' Evening, carving scary faces in turnips and other gourds (which would have been plentiful at the end of the harvest season, this time of year) could, in that case, have a basis in religious belief. The gruesome faces may have been representative of wandering supernatural beings, or they could have been for the purpose of warding them off! It is thought that the idea really took off in the British Isles in the 1800s. Particularly in these Celtic regions such as Ireland where Samhain had been observed.

We often think of Halloween as an American holiday, but it was actually the Irish citizens who introduced the tradition across the pond when large numbers emigrated in the 19th century. Though used to turnips back in Britain, pumpkins were much more readily available in America. The pumpkin had always been representative of the harvest in the United States long before they were associated with the holiday of Halloween and there are records of American pumpkin carving in the early 19th century. And so the tradition evolved. Gradually over the past couple of decades, the pumpkin carving tradition has moved back over to Britain.

So why put a light inside?

Ireland was home to many tales of the Will-o'-the-Wisp, a ubiquitous folklore phenomenon that also went by the name of Jack-o'-Lantern. It was described as an ethereal, unidentifiable ghostly light that led travellers from their path and into difficulty on dark nights.

There are many variations of the tale of Jack-o'-Lantern. The main theme is always the same; Jack manages to trick the Devil into sparing his soul and in doing so accidentally condemns himself to wander the world for ever. He carves a turnip and puts a light inside in order to light his way.

This Gaelic idea of a wandering spirit, luring travellers into trouble and causing mischief while carrying a carved turnip perfectly combines the influences of Samhain on Halloween. Still today some Americans refer to carved Halloween pumpkins as Jack-o'-Lanterns.

So that's a little bit of the background. But whatever the origins or associations this practice may once have had, the various cultural and historical influences have transformed pumpkin carving into a simple domestic tradition enjoyed by many. So best not to think too much about it, and just enjoy a spot of creativity!

Now to create your own!

Pumpkin carving isn't just for youngsters (though children do particularly enjoy this seasonal pastime!) This is something that both adults and children alike love to get stuck into. So this October, why not allow yourself to indulge in a tradition that dates back centuries?

But where to begin?

Choose your pumpkin!

They are in all of the supermarkets by now so you'll have a good choice of size and shape. Cut around the stalk to remove the top, scrape out the innards, and you're good to go. Remember to be careful with the cutting and children should have a responsible adult to help them.

Decide on a design

There really is no limit when it comes to pumpkin carving. But here's few ideas if you're stuck:

1. Stick to tradition

The scary-face pumpkin is a long standing favourite, and simple to do. As long as you're careful, and children have a responsible adult present, all you really need to arm yourself with is a knife. Stick to straight lines and don't over-complicate things for yourself.

2. Get creative

Use a funny shaped pumpkin to invent something unusual, or create an elaborate scene. There are some great examples out there of witches flying through the sky, wolves howling at the moon, cats, haunted houses and so on. You may find you want to get more inventive with your carving tools for this one; a sharp knife is good for the solid shapes, but if you peel just the top layer of pumpkin skin away you will be able to create different shades of light.

3. Think outside the box

Does it even have to be a picture? You could carve a word or a phrase instead! These are good ones for the front door step if you are expecting trick-or-treaters. A simple 'welcome' carved into your pumpkin will let children know they can knock on your door. You will need a steady hand for these kinds of design, and a knife with a long, narrow blade.

Need some inspiration...?

So while you're glamping this year, why not put your skills and imagination to the test? There are plenty of pumpkins around on site to choose from, and we'd love to see what you come up with! To give you some ideas, why not take a look at some of the creations that appeared on site last year. There are some really good ones. Click here to see them.

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Luci Ackers - author for Lantern & Larks
Author: Luci Ackers

Luci loves getting out and about for a good cycle ride or easy-going walks in the countryside, and thoroughly enjoyed the time she previously spent working for the National Trust. Her love of writing started from a young age and on rainy days nothing beats curling up in a secret corner with a good book.


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