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Halloween pumpkin carving and decorating

Adrienne Wyper / 19 October 2016

Find out how to carve a Halloween pumpkin jack-o'-lantern, plus knife-free ideas for decorating them so even young children can have a go.

Pumpkin carving
Pumpkin carving

The origins of carving a pumpkin for Halloween are confused. Some say it’s done to ward off evil spirits who may be roaming on the eve of All Hallows Day; others believe the flickering faces represent lost souls.

Whether you believe these ideas, or simply want some Halloween fun, children will love carving a pumpkin lantern (or decorating one if they’re too young to use a knife safely). It’s much more absorbing and entertaining than buying a plastic version from a supermarket.

How to carve a traditional pumpkin jack-o'-lantern

Using a small, sharp knife, cut the top off the pumpkin. Scrape some of the flesh off the inside of the 'lid'.

Now start to scoop out the flesh and seeds. Set the seeds aside to roast for snacks.

Pumpkin carving

Cut vertically downwards around the edge of the pumpkin, leaving about 1cm thickness in the wall of the pumpkin. Cut away the flesh in chunks and scoop out the seeds with a spoon.

Keep going until almost all of the pumpkin has been hollowed out, making sure that the base inside is fairly level, so the tealight will be stable. You can use the flesh to add to a soup or stew.

Try this recipe for pumpkin and red pepper soup

Now make the face. If you want a traditional design, the minimum cutting you can get away with is two eyes and a mouth, but you can also add a nose and eyebrows. 

The jack-o'-lantern's expression can be scary or smiley, depending on the age of the children. Although a menacing face is traditional (and we do like to stick to a tradition), young children may find a gruesome grimace frightening, and other designs also look very striking when lit from within.

Find the most presentable side of the pumpkin. If you wish, before you start cutting, draw on the shapes for the mouth and eyes, plus nose and eyebrows if you're adding these. It's easiest to keep the shapes fairly simple. 

Pumpkin carving

Push the knife through the wall of the pumpkin along the line of the design, and cut out the desired shape.

Place a tealight or candle stub inside the pumpkin lantern and light. Replace the lid and turn off the lights to see how the lantern looks. To ensure an adequate oxygen supply to the flame, you might need to replace the lid a little off-centre.

Position the lantern after dark on a wall or windowsill.

Carved pumpkin jack-o'-lantern

Knife-free pumpkin decoration ideas

Try scoring a pattern

Instead of cutting holes into the wall of the pumpkin, you can create patterns by scoring a design into the outside. Hollow out the pumpkin as above, then use a vegetable peeler to scrape away about half of the thickness of the pumpkin in your chosen design. The light from inside will shine through, giving a golden glow to your design.

Options to try include your door number, or a phrase such as Happy Halloween. Stripes are striking.

Painted pumpkin jack-o'-lanterns

Paint designs on

For children who are too young to be trusted with a knife, or for locations where you can't keep an eye on the flame, painting or drawing a face or design on a pumpkin with black paint or marker pen is ideal. You can either add the features of the face and leave an orange background, or paint the whole pumpkin black (or white for a ghostly gourd effect), leaving orange skin where the eyes and mouth are.

Stick-on style

Cut out eye and mouth shapes from sticky paper and stick into place. Black looks good, or warm yellow looks like the pumpkin is illuminated from within.

Plasticine pumpkin jack-o-lantern

Press on Plasticine

Roll Plasticine into flattened balls and lengths to form into eye and mouth shapes, or any design. Cut a hole in the pumpkin, and add a Plasticine worm poking out, or winding its way through several holes.

Go for glitter

Paint sections of your pumpkin with glue in a face shape or other design, then sprinkle on the glitter – black works well.

It can be hard to find a pumpkin, particularly if you leave it to the last minute and the shops are sold out. Traditionally, turnips or swedes have been used instead, but it’s very hard to hollow them out. Here are a couple of alternatives, also suitable if you want to avoid the mess made by making a pumpkin lantern.

Pumpkin alternatives

Balloon jack-o'-lanterns

Balloons gone bad...

Draw eye and mouth shapes on to orange balloons with a thick black felt-tip or marker pen. Avoid using a pen with too fine a nib or you may burst your balloons. Blow up and secure with string above doors, by windows and in corners.

Clementine jack-o'-lantern

Scary citrus

Oranges, clementines or satsumas are the right colour to resemble tiny pumpkins. Create a whole crowd of scary faces by drawing features on to the fruit with a black felt-tip pen. These look good grouped in a bowl.

Try this recipe for scary gingerbread skeletons


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.