With Halloween approaching, we thought it would be fun to have a pumpkin-carving party. Thirteen Chinese students came to our house, where I had carefully covered our dining room table with newspaper and gathered a collection of paring knives and big spoons. Luckily they brought a few knives of their own, as well as a nice assortment of pumpkins.
There isn’t a tradition of Halloween in China, so I tried to explain the origins of this pagan festival. I think it began in Ireland hundreds of years ago, when people celebrated the Celtic festival of Samhain. This was long before electric lights, so as winter approached at the end of October only fires could fend off the cold and dark. On the last night of October the Celts believed that the souls of the dead could join the living, and to keep these spirits happy they left food and drink for them outside their houses. There was feasting and celebration, and to avoid being tricked by the mischievous spirits, people disguised themselves in masks and costumes when they went out after dark.
It wasn’t until the 20th century, when Irish immigrants who had settled in America began reviving this autumn festival, that the Halloween we know today began to develop. In time, Halloween became a big part of all North American children’s childhoods (including my own!) I remember dressing up to go out “trick-or-treating” and coming home to count the hoard of sweets I had collected. When we moved to England in 1971 I was very disappointed to discover on October 31st that Halloween was quite unheard of there!
Now, over forty years later, Halloween has really taken off in the UK thanks to its huge popularity in North America. Witches and vampires and black cats are everywhere, and costume shops are doing a roaring trade just now! The supermarkets are heaving with pumpkins, although apparently it’s been a bad crop in England this year, thanks to too much rain. Here in Scotland we have plenty, and so we got carving!
The first step in carving a pumpkin is to cut a hole in the top to make a lid. The stem of the pumpkin makes a perfect handle, and if you cut an irregular-shaped opening it will be easier to fit the lid back on. Star shapes were very popular with our Chinese guests, so this pumpkin has a nice star lid. It’s important to cut the lid on a slight angle towards the stem. That way the lid will sit on the top rather than falling into the hole. Next you have to dig out all the “guts” which is a messy, slimy business! Make sure you have lots of newspaper underneath before you start.
If you want to, it’s possible to separate and wash the pumpkin seeds and toast them in the oven. The familiar green pumpkin seeds you can get in the supermarket are inside those white husks. For a recipe for toasted pumpkin seeds, click HERE.
The next step is to draw your pumpkin’s face with a pencil. Choose the smoothest, cleanest side to work on. The pumpkin above was getting a tiger face, including whiskers and a Chinese symbol on its forehead meaning “king of the world”!
You can see this tiger pumpkin is coming along nicely. Other students consulted their iPhones for ideas on what sort of face to carve. There were some amazing results, like this very toothy character:
When all the pumpkins were finished, we got out the little tea light candles and turned out the lights. Having a box of very long matches is crucial, as the only way to light the candle inside is to reach in through the mouth. It was a challenge, but we got them all lit, with dramatic results!