The pumpkins are back and that means it's time to pick one and turn it into your own personal work of art.
Some of our spare time in the next couple of weeks should be spent enjoying that age-old autumn tradition of carving a jack-o-lantern.
To get started go online and do a search on "pumpkin carving" -- on Google you will discover 1.8 million entries -- amazing -- or visit the library or pick up any number of magazines and see what you can find.
Or read on ... although these are just the fundamentals I was able to recall from my checkered past and find on the Internet.
Before picking your pumpkin, decide on the image you want for your jack-o-lantern: scary, funny, unique? Will the image look better on a perfectly round pumpkin or will one with more personality suit your needs? Sketch out the image, or find one you like online, in a coloring book or magazine and copy it for guidance.
The online "pumpkin carving" sites have images to use or links to other sites where you can find designs.
Now, with a design in mind, go in search of the perfect pumpkin.
The "experts" online have the following recommendations for selecting your pumpkin:
- Select pumpkins that are uniformly orange, meaning they are ripe; have no bruises, cuts or nicks. It should be as smooth as possible, and free of scratches, dents or gouges (pumpkincarving.com)
- Check for discoloration and soft spots; look for pumpkins with a sturdy stem, this is a sign of a healthy pumpkin; make sure the base is undamaged, if the bottom is thin, it can get punctured (Walt's Pumpkin Carving Secrets at wis.wwco.com/garden/pumpkin.html).
Tools for pumpkin carving can be as simple as a sturdy, sharp knife with a long blade, a big spoon or ice cream scoop and some newspapers or as elaborate as a variety of knives and saws, an ice pick or artist's stylus tool and grease pencils. Then there are also the carving kits that can be found in stores around town.
Start by cutting off the top of the pumpkin to create a lid and access to remove the insides. One expert said a round opening does not work as well as one that is more square. Scoop out the insides, leaving about an inch-thick wall and a flat bottom (on which to place a candle in a votive holder if you plan to illuminate the pumpkin).
The design on the pumpkin can be carved freehand; loosely sketched with a grease pencil, crayon or even an old eyeliner pencil; or precisely placed on the pumpkin by taping the design image onto the face, then poke guide holes into the pumpkin through the paper guide using an ice pick, stylus, large nail or possibly a shish kebab skewer.
To carve the design, saw slowly and gently, according to Walt's Pumpkin Carving Secrets.
To preserve the jack-o-lantern once it is carved, put it in a tub of cold water, face down, and let it fill with water. Dehydration is what makes the carved pumpkins shrivel, so a good soaking helps firm them up.
They can be soaked anytime they begin to shrivel or misted on a regular basis. Add a little unscented bleach to the water to kill the germs that can lead to mold.
Halloween is based on an ancient Celtic holiday known as (Samhain - pronounced "sow wan"), which means "summer's end".
It was also the end of the Celtic year, starting at sundown Oct. 31 and ending at sundown Nov. 1. It was a night to honor loved ones who had died because the Celts believed the veil between the realm between the living and dead was thinnest on that night.
It was believed to be a magical night as well, and glowing jack-o-lanterns, carved from turnips or gourds, were set on porches and in windows to welcome deceased loved ones, but also to act as protection against spirits that might do harm.
When European settlers, particularly the Irish, arrived in America, they found the native pumpkins to be larger and easier to carve for use as jack-o-lanterns.
However, celebrating Halloween did not catch on in this country until the late 1800s.