Carving a jack o’lantern is not an activity for the overly sentimental. After hours spent scooping, scraping, and sculpting, these mini works of art will only last about three to five days (up to two weeks, if you’re very lucky) before they start to show signs of decay. There are countless ways to delay the withering of a carved pumpkin, but nothing lasts forever. Perhaps the beautifully-carved jack o’ lantern isn’t so bewitching in spite of its imminent demise, but because of it.
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. It takes 15 to 20 people three hours each night to light votive candles inside the pumpkins. Last year’s Blaze drew 160,000 people to the small village located 20 minutes north of Sleepy Hollow.
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. They flicker and sparkle, casting their warm glow over the secluded, wooded grounds of Van Cortlandt Manor. 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.
According to the Blaze’s website, “Professional lighting designer Jay Woods works with the Blaze team to create an atmospheric tableau that enhances the carving artistry and transforms the Manor House into an amazing, ever-changing spectacle. Various arrangements and placements of pumpkins are meant to complement and draw attention to the site’s architecture, history, and landscape.”
But these aren’t static stoop or porch pumpkins. Archways carved with messages welcome visitors to the Blaze, and jack o’ lanterns are stacked into sculptures, hung from trees, and twisted into Celtic knots. A pumpkin merry-go-round rotates, jack o’ lanterns pop out of windup boxes, and shooting stars streak across the ceiling of a pumpkin planetarium.
There’s an entire wall of pumpkins carved with emojis, a long circus train, a buzzing beehive, several dinosaurs, a sea monster, a sunflower field, and all twelve zodiac signs. A 25-foot-tall replica of the Statue of Liberty comprises 114 individually-carved jack o’ lanterns.
While some of the art pumpkins are reused, every year the Blaze gets bigger and better. New installations this year include The Museum of Pumpkin Art (MOPA), a pumpkin bridge (based on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, officially named the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge), and a hyper-realistic pack of dogs.
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 Blaze may not have existed when Irving wrote his famous short story or lived at Sunnyside in nearby Tarrytown, but I think he would approve. The headless Hessian soldier from Irving’s “Legend” is usually depicted on horseback, wielding a carved jack o’ lantern. After being chased by the horseman, schoolmaster Ichabod Crane mysteriously disappears from Sleepy Hollow—leaving behind a trampled saddle, his hat, and a shattered pumpkin.
Irving’s influence is felt all over the area, but especially at the Blaze. Nearly 200 years later, his words still ring true: “The dominant spirit, however, that haunts this enchanted region, and seems to be commander-in-chief of all the powers of the air, is the apparition of a figure on horseback, without a head.”
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.