What do Martha Stewart, George W. Bush, and Larry King have in common? Aside from being global icons, the three are also memorialized in pumpkin portraits. These coveted intricate carvings are the work of one Chesterfield, Va., mother who never knew she had the talent until her son badgered her into fashioning one for him.
That was ten years ago. Putting tradition aside, pumpkin-carver Lisa Berberette, 36, is onto something she calls "Happy-Halloween Carving." Her portfolio today includes commissioned pumpkin-carvings of Charles Gibson, Oprah Winfrey, and Diane Sawyer, which can take her some 30 hours each to complete. She has come to be known simply as the "Pumpkin Lady."
Berberette keeps the fright out of her designs. "Imagine being 2 [years old] and walking up the steps of a home and looking up to see this giant face as big as you are, aflame," says the artist. Her variation? She suggests fun patterns, like stars, or the child's name."Who doesn't like to see their name in lights?" she says.
Grandparents need not be expert whittlers to bring this activity home to their grandchildren. Arleen and Michael Bobal, both 61, of Wantagh, New York, spent a recent Saturday carving pumpkins with their three granddaughters: Luca, 6, Gwen, 4, and Naomi, 2 1/2. The two older girls drew the images they wanted carved; Luca chose a traditional jack-o-lantern while Gwen went with a smiley face. Ever the dutiful big sister, Luca drew a smiley face on the toddler's pumpkin as well. Each child held her grandmother's hand as she cut the images from the patterns.
"When they were done I put pumpkin candles in them and turned out the lights," Arleen Bobal says. "They were so excited to show their father when he came to pick them up."
Halloween itself is connected to Samhain, the Celtic celebration of the changing of the seasons. Years later, in 835 C.E., Pope Gregory IV sanctified November 1 as All Saints Day. The night before came to be known as All Hallows' Eve.
The Irish and the Scots are known for the tradition of carving frightening images into potatoes and turnips to ward off evil spirits. Gaining popularity in the United States in the late 1800s, it has become emblematic of Halloween.
As you go about your adventure in pumpkin carving, a good fable is always entertaining for the youngsters. Irish lore tells the tale of the origin of the jack-o-lantern. Stingy Jack was a mean-spirited trickster and drunk. One day, Stingy Jack tricked the devil into climbing a tree. When the devil was perched high on a branch, Jack placed crosses all around the base. The devil, of course, couldn't descend past the crosses, so Jack extracted Satan's promise not to take him to hell when he died. Upon Stingy Jack's death, he went to heaven where entry was barred because of his vice-ridden and mean ways. The devil, true to his word, forbade him entrance to hell. Jack was doomed to wander the night guided only by an ember taken from the fires of hell and given to him by Satan. Too hot to hold, Stingy Jack hollowed a turnip (pumpkins don't grow in Ireland) and placed the ember inside. There are several variations on the tale so feel free to make it work for you and your grandchildren.
Carving tips from Lisa Berberette, the Pumpkin Lady
1. When choosing a pumpkin, the darker the skin color, the firmer it will be. While it will be more difficult to cut, it will last longer.
2. "It's food; it's going to rot," Berberette says. She has tried applying Vaseline to the carved edges only to end up with a mess; preservative-spray only gave her a day or two more life. The best way to keep the pumpkin from spoiling is to take it out of the sun and wrap the carved areas in plastic wrap. Mist the pumpkin with water every so often to keep the fruit moist. Depending on the pumpkin, you should expect it to last about two weeks.
3. Carving stencils are available free on the Pumpkin Lady's website, Pumpkinlady.com, as well as on several others easily found online. When choosing a stencil, remember this is a family effort with children so keep it simple. The idea is having fun together, not creating a museum piece.
4. The tools are readily available and reasonably priced at Walmart, Michaels, and Walgreens.
5. Pumpkin carving is sloppy business, so, if possible, take it outside. You can find an inexpensive plastic tablecloth at a dollar store.
6. When cutting out the top, the blade should be at an angle so the top can be replaced securely.
7. After removing the top, scoop the seeds and pulp out of the pumpkin to approximately an inch thickness. Should you choose a more intricate design, leave the flesh somewhat thicker so it will have more structural integrity to accommodate the delicate cutting.
8. Roasted pumpkin seeds are a great snack. Arleen Bobal spreads them on a cookie sheet, sprinkles them with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and places them in a 350 degree F oven to roast for at least 45 minutes until light golden.
9. Guide young children through the carving process by putting your hand atop theirs.
10. Pumpkins don't "give"; when you're cutting a curve, saw gently and quickly, turning it in the direction you want it to go. If you try to strong-arm it, you will bend or break the tool.
11. Candles create lovely and classic light, but they also create a danger to children, pets, and property. Battery-powered flickering lights are available at a reasonable price and can serve many uses after the holiday is over. Your pumpkins will glow as brightly as your grandchildren's smiles.
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