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Maniac Pumpkin Carvers
Maniac Pumpkin Carvers

11 Tips for Carving a Better Jack O'Lantern

Maniac Pumpkin Carvers
Maniac Pumpkin Carvers

Forget two triangles and a toothy grin; this Halloween, take your jack o'lanterns to the next level. We asked Marc Evan, co-founder of Brooklyn-based Maniac Pumpkin Carvers—whose crew carves everything from corporate logos for Martha Stewart and the Yankees to replicas of Escher, Klimt, and Van Gogh paintings on as many as 400 pumpkins a season—for a few tips. "We look at it as this new art medium," Evan says. "For us, it's this really fun material to work with, and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what we can carve into a pumpkin." 

1. GET A PUMPKIN WITH A STEM.

Pumpkins grow on vines and rest on the ground, so the stem is never meant to support the fruit’s weight; a pumpkin without a stem means it’s been handled—or more likely mishandled—a lot. To ensure you’re getting the freshest pumpkin, look for one with a greenish stem. “If a pumpkin has been sitting around, the stems will dry out and get brittle,” Evan says. “The greener the stems the better. We also like when they have a big, thick stem, which is an indication that the walls of the pumpkin will be thick as well. The thicker the stem, the heavier the pumpkin and the better it is for carving or sculpting.” Also avoid pumpkins with blemishes, soft spots, or bugs, as you would when picking out any other kind of fruit.

2. DON’T DISMISS A WEIRDLY-SHAPED PUMPKIN.

“Part of the fun of pumpkin carving is that pumpkins come in so many shapes and sizes,” Evan says. “We actually almost prefer some of the really awkward ones. They can inspire some unique designs.”

3. HAVE A PLAN.

Evan recommends drawing out what you plan to do before you ever make a cut on your pumpkin. “We’ll print out a bunch of references to get inspiration,” he says. “And then we’ll draw our design with a pen onto the pumpkin and start carving away.”

4. WAIT TO CARVE—BUT WORK FAST ONCE YOU START.

You can buy your pumpkin whenever you want—“they should last a really long time until you carve them,” Evan says—but wait until you want display to start carving. He and his crew at Maniac Pumpkin Carvers usually create a pumpkin just 24 hours before an event, and once they start carving, they don't stop until a pumpkin is finished, which can sometimes take 10 hours. “We’re working with a perishable food item,” Evan says. “As soon as you cut into it, it’s starting to decompose. It's unpredictable—we’ve had some carved that last three weeks but then others three days. At home, it’s kind of safe to carve it within two or three days of when you really want it for. But if you want it for Halloween, you shouldn’t carve it at the beginning of October.”

5. KEEP A WATER BOTTLE HANDY.

“Pumpkins don’t oxidize as fast as an apple or avocado would, but if you leave it out on the counter over the course of just one day, you do see the change in the structure of the pumpkin,” Evan says. “It’s losing a lot of moisture, so one thing we do while carving is we’re constantly spraying it, trying to keep it wet. That helps it to stay workable.”

6. THINK BEYOND THE TYPICAL PUMPKIN CARVING KIT.

Evan and the Maniac Pumpkin crew will use whatever it takes to carve a pumpkin, including paring knives, lemon zesters, rasps, Exacto knives, saws, and clay sculpting tools. “Ribbon hoops that are normally effective on clay work great on pumpkins,” Evan says. “One of our favorites actually is a linoleum cutter, normally used in print-making—it’s great for doing intricate designs and line work. Really, anything that is sharp can be useful.”

Still, for scooping, you can’t get much better than what comes in a kid’s pumpkin carving kit. “We love those little plastic orange scoops,” he says. “But you can also use big spoons—we have a couple of big, wide salad serving spoons that we’ve snapped the handles off of, and those work really great.”

7. LEAVE THE TOP ON.

Removing the top not only messes with the structural integrity of the pumpkin, it also cuts off the vine, which supplies the fruit with nutrients and moisture until it's all dried out. “When you cut around it, you’re kinda cutting off that lifeline that’s keeping the pumpkin fresh,” Evan says. “So we like to keep that intact.” Likewise, cutting off the bottom is a bad idea because “pumpkins give off so much water when you cut them that all that liquid can start oozing out onto the table or whatever surface the pumpkin is on and really make a mess.” Evan favors cutting a hole in the back of the pumpkin instead.

8. WEAR RUBBER GLOVES.

There’s no getting around it: You’ll have to get a little dirty scooping out the inside of the pumpkin. But if you find the goop that gross, Evan suggests donning rubber gloves.

9. SCOOP EVERYTHING OUT. AND WE MEAN EVERYTHING.

Leaving bits of pumpkin goop inside your jack o’lantern is a big no-no. “Those are gonna start getting moldy and then it’ll spread to the walls of the pumpkin,” Evan says. “When we scrape the walls really thin and get every last little stringy bit out, the walls are almost drier and seem to stay that way longer before they start to break down.”

10. USE ELECTRIC LIGHT.

Evan recommends LEDs or CFLs. “They get really bright, but they don’t give off heat,” he says. “You want to keep the pumpkin as cold as possible, and if you have a heat source inside of it, the pumpkin is gonna start to cook inside. Which actually can smell nice, but doesn’t help with the longevity of the pumpkin.”

11. PUT IT IN THE FRIDGE.

Nothing you can do will add weeks to your jack o’lantern’s life, but there are things you can do to add a few days. “Our favorite thing to do is, when it’s done with display, we’ll wrap it up really tight with plastic wrap and keep it some place really cool, preferably a refrigerator,” Evan says. "If it’s cool at night, near a cool window or in a garage will also work.”

Check out Maniac Pumpkin Carvers’ incredible work on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

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7 Spine-Tingling Tales of Christmas Ghosts
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Traditionally, Christmas in England was a time for scaring the bejesus out of little children by telling ghost stories around the fire. Charles Dickens led the way with his famous ghost story A Christmas Carol, but what of the "real" ghosts said to haunt the land at Christmas time? Below are seven spine-tingling and seasonal stories of Christmas ghosts.

1. THE HAUNTED CHRISTMAS FEAST AT ALCATRAZ

Dinner hall at Alcatraz
Alex Light, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The island of Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco, has a long and spooky history. In its earlier days, Native Americans allegedly used to banish miscreants to the island as punishment, where they were reportedly plagued by the local spirits. Alcatraz, of course, became a notorious federal prison in 1934, housing criminals such as Al Capone before it was shut down in 1963. Today, visitors to the island report hearing screams, the clanging of metal doors, and the sound of voices within the walls. One of the more famous tales associated with the island supposedly occurred in the 1940s, when warden James Johnston held a Christmas Day party at his residence for the staff at the prison. The good cheer is said to have been brought to a swift halt when an apparition sporting mutton-chop whiskers and a gray suit appeared. The temperature in the room plummeted and the fire blew out, before returning to normal when the spirit disappeared about a minute later. The rattled guards were too scared to stay in the residence, and the rest of the Christmas celebration ended abruptly.

2. THE GHOSTLY QUEEN RETURNING HOME AT HEVER CASTLE

Hever Castle
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Anne Boleyn is notorious as the second of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated wives. To marry Anne, Henry spent years seeking a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and went on to sever England’s relationship with the Catholic Church in Rome, forever changing the course of British history. Despite the lengths he went to ensnare her, Henry soon grew tired of Anne and, choosing to believe the idle gossip surrounding her, had her beheaded in 1536. A number of reports exist of the ghost of Anne Boleyn, but perhaps the most affecting is the version said to haunt her childhood home, Hever Castle in Kent. Some say that every Christmas Eve, the spectral figure of Anne Boleyn can be seen slowly gliding across the bridge over the river Eden toward her family home, where she was at her happiest.

3. THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN AT ROOS HALL


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Roos Hall in Suffolk lays claim to being one of the most haunted houses in England. The 16th century hall has a number of sinister connections, including a gruesome “hanging tree”—an oak tree planted at the site of the old gibbet where numerous criminals were hung. To make things even spookier, inside one of the building's cupboards, the mark of a devil’s cloven hoof is said to be imprinted. But perhaps the most dramatic haunting is supposed to happen every Christmas Eve: Legend has it that a headless horseman clatters down the driveway with his four black horses pulling a phantom coach, terrifying anyone who witnesses him.

4. THE HAUNTED DINING ROOM AT THE CRESCENT HOTEL

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was built in 1886 and is rumoured to harbor numerous ghosts, who seem to be especially playful during the holidays. One Christmas, the staff came down to set up the dining room only to find the Christmas tree had been moved from one side of the room to the other. Another year, all the menus in the dining room had been scattered around the room. Other visitors have reported seeing groups of ghostly dancers clad in Victorian-era clothing, whirling around the deserted dance floor.

5. THE GHOSTLY GATHERING OF KINGS AT WAWEL CASTLE

View of the Wawel Cathedral from the Wawel Castle entrance
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Poland's Wawel Royal Castle was built on Wawel Hill in the 1500s. Within the hill lies a deep cave known as Smocza Jama (Dragon’s Den); legend has it that a great dragon once lived there, terrorizing the locals, before Prince Krak bravely vanquished the dragon and brought peace to Poland. To memorialize this event, a statue of the dead dragon now stands in the cave. Go deeper into the cave and you come to yet another chamber, and it is here that on December 24 every year, all the long-gone kings of Poland are said to meet and hold a spectral special council.

6. THE MISTLETOE BRIDE AT BRAMSHILL HOUSE

The Long Gallery, Bramshill House
Tsukiko YAMAMURA, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the early 17th century, a young woman named Anne was to be married on Christmas Day at Bramshill House in Hampshire, England. After the ceremony and feast, as was tradition at the time, the guests were all set to carry the bride to the bedchamber. Anne suggested a game be played, and asked for a five-minute head start before the guests came to find her. Everyone searched long and hard for Anne, but no sign of her could be found. At first they thought she had played a merry trick, but soon a sense of unease fell over the guests. The bridegroom, Lord Lovell, was distraught, and guests began to whisper that she must have fled. Days, weeks, months, and years passed, and Lord Lovell never stopped looking for his bride. One day, some 50 years after her disappearance, Lord Lovell was up in the huge attic of the sprawling mansion, where he began tapping on the oak panelling. As he knocked, a long-hidden secret door sprung open, and inside he found an ornate wooden chest. He pried open the heavy wooden lid, and there, still in her wedding dress and clutching her mistletoe bouquet, were the skeletal remains of his beloved. The scratch marks on the inside of the lid of the chest attested to her desperate, but futile, effort to free herself from her hiding space. (While the story appears in many variations, Bramshill House is thought to be the most likely site.)

7. THE APPARITION OF A MURDERED HIGHWAYMAN IN KENT

A burial in the forest
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One Christmas Eve near the close of the 18th century, a notorious highwayman named Gilbert is said to have stopped a coach and horses on the Hawkhurst Road in Marden, Kent. The coach contained a young lady and her father, and Gilbert ordered them out onto the road. Just as the girl stepped out, the horses bolted, taking the coach and her father with them. The young lady was left alone on the dark road with the highwayman, and as she looked into his face, she recognized him as the very same highwayman who had murdered her brother some years earlier. Horrified, she drew a hidden knife from her bag and stabbed Gilbert in the side, fleeing into the bushes. When the horses were calmed and the coach returned a little while later, the men discovered the bloodied body of the highwayman, and buried him at the side of the road. When villagers found the woman in the forest the next day, she had gone completely mad. They avoided that spot in the road for many years, and it's said that every Christmas Eve, the bloody scene is silently replayed to all that pass through.

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