30 October 2019 12:37
The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze, now in its 15th year, is a 49-night Halloween extravaganza featuring more than 7,000 illuminated jack-o'-lanterns at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-On-Hudson, New York. New to The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze is an immersive display of the Headless Horseman Bridge. Forty five percent of Americans agree: 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are grown—and carved—annually in the U.S. Every year since 2005, 10,000 of those pumpkins (more than 200,000 pounds) have ended up in the Hudson Valley, destined for the spotlight at the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze. From late September until the end of November, more than 7,000 hand-carved jack o'lanterns are on display each night at Van Cortlandt Manor, in the Westchester County village of Croton-on-Hudson, New York. While some of the Blaze's pumpkins are artificial "Fun-Kins," every single one is individually hand-carved on site at the historic 17th-century Van Cortlandt property by a team of thousands of staff, volunteers, and local artists.
Carving of the Fun-Kins begins every year back in June, and real pumpkins are carved and replaced as necessary throughout the Blaze's two-and-a-half month run. This year was my third time seeing the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze and it still hasn't lost its ability to dazzle. Describing the Hudson Valley, Diedrich Knickerbocker, the narrator of Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," says: "If ever I should wish for a retreat whither I might steal from the world and its distractions, and dream quietly away the remnant of a troubled life, I know of none more promising than this little valley." Knickerbocker may as well have been describing the Blaze—it is indeed easy to forget about the real world while surrounded by thousands of intricately-carved jack o' lanterns. At other times of the year, the colonial-era stone and brick house is a museum and a National Historic Landmark, but every fall it's the backdrop for a massive art installation—painted entirely with pumpkins. Pumpkins perched on a railing of Van Cortlandt Manor.
While some of the art pumpkins are reused, every year the Blaze gets bigger and better. MOPA features versions of famous works of art, each with a spooky twist: The headless horseman appears as the impetus for Edvard Munch's Scream and he sits at the lonely diner counter in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. A can of pumpkin soup receives the Andy Warhol treatment, pumpkins take the place of melting clocks in Salvador Dalí's Persistence of Memory, and the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile has been replaced by a grinning jack o' lantern. The headless Hessian soldier from Irving's "Legend" is usually depicted on horseback, wielding a carved jack o' lantern. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan The headless horseman. This year, visitors can feel the breeze and hear the horseman's gallop as they walk over the Headless Horseman Bridge, constructed of hundreds of pumpkins carved to resemble wood grain; tiny pumpkin bats flutter their carved wings overhead. If the headless horseman ever returns to the region in search of a replacement head, he will find plenty of suitable options at the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze. The Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze takes place at Van Cortlandt Manor every night in October and on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays in November. We often hear carved pumpkins referred to as jack-o'-lanterns, an Irish-sounding term mostly used in America. There's a rich mythology behind the name of the familiar carved pumpkin or turnip, a folk tale found across Ireland, Scotland, and in Somerset on "Punkie night". Jack-o'-the-lantern initially referred to the natural phenomenon of ignis fatuus, the flickering marsh-lights that appear over bogs and can often lead travellers astray. In the 18th century, the eponymous Jack, or "Stingy Jack" was said to be a mean-spirited blacksmith who tricked the devil and in return was given an ember from hell to light his lantern. When the devil send messengers to claim him, they are tricked each time by Jack's false hospitality, but there's no happy ending for Jack - barred from heaven and hell - he wanders the earth alone. Jack-o'-lantern's transformation from folk antihero to carved root vegetable is another chapter in the story. There are references to the carving of turnips, beets and potatoes at Halloween in Ireland in the 19th century, but the conflation of the Jack-o'-lantern story with pumpkin-carving seems to have happened in North America, with immigrants from Ireland adapting their traditions to American harvest customs. The first North American reference to Jack-o'-lantern comes courtesy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1835 story, The Great Carbuncle, about a group of adventurers seeking a precious stone with mystical qualities: While the image evoked here suggests a carved pumpkin, it's just as possible that Hawthorne is referring to a Will-o'-the-wisp. An earlier reference, in Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow (1820), has the headless horseman fling a pumpkin at Ichabod Crane, but it's not mentioned whether the pumpkin is carved - it could merely be a useful head-shaped object, readily available to a prankster on a dark autumn evening. The first definite connection between pumpkins, Halloween and the Jack-o'-the-lantern comes in a Canadian news report from Daily News in 1886: "The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe'en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city […]There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle". Later, the myth seems to have evolved again so that the carved pumpkins were intended to scare away the spirit of Stingy Jack, rather than to symbolise the lantern he carried - another example of the rich layers of myth, folktale and ritual that inform our Halloween traditions.