It's the weekend before Halloween. There is a chill in the air, the smell of harvest hangs sweet and heavy around you as crisp brown leaves crackle beneath your feet. Icy wind that could just as easily be a symptom of the waning fall or the breath of a risen corpse shivers down your neck. You bundle your coat closer against you, avoiding looking too deeply into the shadows that creep along the edges of your vision. There is a slow, steady pounding in the distance. Faint at first it grows closer, closer... Is it the hooves of those Horseman's faithful steed as he rides? Or is it simply the echo of your own beating heart thumping from within your chest?
Few things say Halloween to me like my annual weekend visit to Tarrytown, NY and the Village of Sleepy Hollow (yes, it's a real place, the town having adopted the name of Irving's tale in 1996)--the sleepy, dewy little town in New York which plays home to Washington Irving's classic ghostly tale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Who doesn't love a headless horseman?
The entire village comes alive in October, helmed mostly by Historic Hudson Valley, a "not-for-profit education organization that interprets and promotes historic landmarks of national significance in the Hudson Valley for the benefit and enjoyment of the public." From hay rides and village parades, to visiting both the birth and resting place of author Washington Irving and more in the Old Dutch Cemetery, there is something to set every Halloween enthusiast's spirits in the mood for the High Holiday in October in Sleepy Hollow.
My two favorite events of the season are the live performances of Irving's class tale, told by silver-tongued storyteller, Jonathan Kruk, and the Great Jack-o-Lantern Blaze.
A Masterful Story Told by a Masterful Storyteller
Few things are as delightful as being regaled with a story by someone who knows how to weave a good tale. From the tips of his buckled shoes to that of his tricorn hat, Jonathan Kruk deliver Irving's classic tale in a way that might have sent a chill down Irving's spine himself.
No matter how many times I see Kruk perform, I am always spell-bound as I listen to his stories, told with such passion that each rendition is a new and delightful experience. Kruk's clever quirks--including a light bit of humor with the aid of organ player Tim Keys--change a simple recitation into an experience, and combined with the setting of the Old Dutch Church itself one might find themselves transported back into a simpler time when the snipe nose of Ichabod Crane helped to predict the wind as it blew through the cemetery grounds outside, warning of nightfall and the Horseman's annual ride through the sleepy town.
Aside from being a masterful storyteller, Kruk is also an all around nice guy whom I've had the pleasure of watching perform not only Irving's tale, but Dickens', and fairytales in Spring at Beltane. Not only a talented storyteller by voice, he can always spin a yarn in pen! I just picked up his book this year on my trip to Tarrytown. He doesn't know yet, but I'll be asking for a signature when I return to hear him perform Dicken's classic Christmas tale in December.
The Great Jack-o-Lantern Blaze
Every fall, Van Cortlandt Manor is transformed into a glowing beacon of unearthly orange light, lit by thousands of grinning pumpkins that make Ray Bradbury's halloween tree look like a candle flame set next to the sun. Thousands of hand-carved pumpkins lit by thousands of hand-lit votives crawl the expanse of this historic home, fashioned into everything from lanterns to carousels, to a giant spiderweb and the Headless Horseman himself--throwing a flaming pumpkin no less.
This year I had the pleasure of meeting Cheryl Bernstein, one half of the two-person team that first introduced the Blaze to Hudson Valley fourteen years ago. Ms. Bernstein, a delightful woman who chatted with me for more time than I rightfully should have asked for, is the production coordinator for the Blaze, and the woman who singlehandedly carved an entire installation of funkins (as the festival makes use of both) with a Celtic Knot display. I should also mention that while Ms. Bernstein is clearly young at heart, she is no mere sprig of a girl, which makes her ability to hand-carve several dozen intricate knots ever the more impressive.
This year, according to Ms. Bernstein, the Blaze boasts 10k live pumpkins, lit by 50k votives. Twenty-five paid scoopers arrive at the site daily to scoop fresh pumpkins, a fraction of the total 2700 volunteers who participate each year in carving and lighting. Putting an event of this magnitude on is no small feat, and if you have the chance to visit I strongly encourage you to do so. My favorite of this year's new features was the carousel, crafted by one of the members of the original carouseling family. It actually spins.
Plus, there's apple cider donuts and hot cider (and things stronger) to keep you wander as you stroll through the lights. Just...like on Halloween night itself, stay close and don't go beyond the edges of the light. You never know what is lurking in the dark in Sleepy Hollow.