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Local Halloween Traditions Reflect Spooky History


Who would ever think that a strange-looking squash would generate both an unofficial holiday and a multi-billion dollar industry? This ancient vegetable is now the symbol for a season of giving thanks, retrospection and, yes ? a night of fun. Over many decades, the ritual of Halloween with carved pumpkins, masks, and spooky outfits has become one of the most celebrated events on our fall calendar.

Halloween is big business; it accounts for roughly $2.6 billion in annual sales in the United States alone. Aside from the ever-growing numbers of adult and child celebrants for Halloween, there are now pumpkin-growing contests where proud farmers boast stunning results.

Pumpkin carving originated in the 1600s in England, where the term ?Jack-O’-Lantern? came into use to describe light flickering over peat bogs, a phenomenon sometimes called ?Will-O’-the Wisp? in British folklore. In the 19th century, revelers in Ireland and Scotland often carved strange faces and figures on turnips and other vegetables to represent spirits coming to life around the time of the autumn harvest. The term Jack-O’-Lantern came to be used in America in the 1830s. Noted poet John Greenleaf Whittier even wrote a poem titled ?The Pumpkin?:

??When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin? Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!?

The 2013 Great Pumpkin Carve takes place at the Chadds Ford Historical Society behind the Barn Visitor Center, 1736 Creek Road (Old Route 100), Chadds Ford, Pa. from Thursday, October 24 through Saturday, October 26 from 5pm to 9pm each night. More than 60 carvers delight viewers with their wildly sculpted creations. There will be hayrides and live music, as well as food and beverages sponsored by the Concordville-Chadds Ford Rotary.

Why the scary faces and flickering lights? An old Irish folk tale mentions a farmer named Jack who had a terrifying encounter with the devil; Jack later wandered the Earth searching for a place to rest as he carried a hollowed-out turnip holding a glowing ember. Superstitious people over the centuries tried to protect their homes and families with Jack-O’-Lanterns as a way to ward off evil spirits and, yes ? even vampires. The more grotesque the images, the better they served to scare away loathsome entities. Thus began a trend which has lasted up to the present day, with children and parents enjoying this fanciful pursuit that brings more joy than almost any other day of the year. Pumpkin carving events around the Chadds Ford area started to attract attention when Andrew Wyeth began displaying his pumpkins in the 1970s around the Chadds Ford Inn. His creations became so popular, the event eventually moved to the grounds of the nearby Chadds Ford Historical Society (CFHS), where it has been thrilling people of all ages for more than two decades.

This year showcases a new event, the ?Haunted Trail,? where kids of all ages can wander through a spooky path featuring ghosts, goblins and flying creatures known to inhabit the nether world around All Hallows? Eve. In addition, there will also be ?A Not So Scary Halloween? ? a reading of stories at the historic John Chads House (circa 1725) just across the street from the Society on Sunday, October 27 at 4pm. All are encouraged to come in costume and parade around the grounds to ward off any spooky ?uninvited? guests. So this year, the public will get two opportunities to make Halloween a fun event for the entire family ? The Great Pumpkin Carve and the readings at the John Chads House. For more information, contact the Historical Society at 610-388-7376 or visit its website at www.chaddsfordhistory.org.

Gene Pisasale is an author based in Kennett Square whose books and lecture series focus on topics of local interest. ?The Forgotten Star? is his latest historical novel, which delves into the War of 1812 and true-life mysteries surrounding an American icon ? the Star-Spangled Banner. His website is www.GenePisasale.com. He can be reached at G…@GenePisasale.com..