Why we carve jack-o-lanterns

We walk across grass as flat as straw after the frost, though the earth is still soft. The air is damp enough for jean jackets, and it smells of leaves, wood smoke, water and damp hay. I am 10, my sister is 7 and my brother is 3, and we have a job to do. We are peering with care at the pumpkins.

I remember this, the way I remember helping to bake chocolate chip cookies — not as one time, but as many times blended together, leaving an imprint of sounds and smells and tastes. The pumpkin stems are rough against my palm as I lift one pumpkin and them another to see them on all sides. I want a roundish one, not too big and not too small, not too uneven, not too much freckled from lying on the ground.

A Berkshire family paints pumpkins at a Halloween event at the Mount.
Photo by Susan Geller

A Berkshire family paints pumpkins at a Halloween event at the Mount.

Choosing pumpkins isn’t an exact science. It’s an instinct. It isn’t a matter of reason, only a reason to wander through the pumpkin patch in the afternoon, smelling the buttery smell of squash. And like most holiday activities, it’s a simple thing and elfinly out of the ordinary. Part of the charm is that we don’t usually take the time to do this.

Another part is that when my mother has helped us to bring our pumpkins home, my dad will come home early to help us carve them. Holidays have about them a tinge of elation, the kind of punchy silliness that comes with a snow day and a sudden break from school, the kind that will come years later with a hike up to Stony Ledge to drink cider and play jigs on Mountain Day.

Some of that spirit, on this October afternoon, is just that all my family are all here, and we are thinking cheerfully about one thing.

We’re thinking about carving pumpkins. My dad has spread newspaper across the old kitchen table, which is two inches thick and impervious, and we are drawing rough pencil designs on shirt cardboard. Laura and I are probably helping Steve to decide how his pumpkin will look, because older sisters do that kind of thing. He is very patient about it.

Dad cuts the tops off of the pumpkins, and we scoop out the gloop in the center. That smell of pumpkin and the slippery mass of the seeds are part of the afternoon, the way, in a few months, the smell of evergreen will become part of the anticipation of midwinter.

Outside the leaves are sifting down, and later today we may rake them into leaf piles, “helping” with the yard work, and then jump into them. The air is crisp and clean and partly sunny, and Laura draws carefully, first on the cardboard and then on her pumpkin. Dad will cut out the faces for us. My sister has a clear drawing hand and skillful fingers.

My pumpkin tends toward quizzical. It has uneven peaked eyebrows, an off-center nose and a round mouth caught up in a sideways grin. I like pumpkins with a sense of humor and a little mischief.

I know it will change in the dark. We will put the jack-o-lanterns on the front steps, and in a few nights we will light the candles. The pumpkin flesh will turn almost translucent, the way my hand looks when I close it over a flashlight, and the light will flicker behind the open eyes.

Lighted jack-o-lanterns, pumpkins by candlelight, have a smell, a feel, a realness to them. Firelight has a pull — why, after all, do people around a fire spontaneously find themselves singing? Gathering around an electric light doesn’t seem to raise the hairs on the back of the neck in the same way.

I still feel that pull around a fire, and I still like carving pumpkins, especially with friends. I brought one home to carve today for the first time in years. My parents still walk with me in the fields, and I help them rake leaves, and I know a group of small boys just the right size for leaf piles. My brother is almost six feet tall now and better with a sketch pad than I am. And my sister is an obstetrician and gynecologist and skilled with her hands.

In October I often send her a tiny pumpkin for her birthday — and a tiny beeswax candle to put in it.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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