Thursday October 25, 2012

Just as her own parents taught her, Katherine O'Neil carefully carved out the eyes and mouth on a pumpkin, letting her then-2-year-old son observe a Halloween tradition that she recalls learning at a young age.

"He was so excited. He's looking directly at the pumpkin and smiling to himself. He was very pleased," O'Neil said, recalling her son, Leo, and their experience last year.

"It was his first ever jack-o'-lantern. Pretty exciting," she added. She plans to carve another one with him this month.

It's that time of year again.

The craft of pumpkin carving is as natural to autumn as the fall foliage, and two South Berkshire organizations will embrace it to build community spirit in the week, leading into Halloween, which is Wednesday.

Stockbridge Library and Sheffield Historical Society will celebrate the holiday with old-fashioned pumpkin carving, a Halloween staple that has persevered despite the messiness in handfuls of moist, scraggly pulp tangled in pumpkin seeds.

Why carve a pumpkin?

"Why decorate a Christmas tree?" O'Neil, the director of the Stockbridge Library, asked rhetorically. "I think [pumpkin carving is] part of the fabric of the holiday."

After local carvers dropped off roughly 60 to 70 pumpkins last year -- some ghoulish, others classically carved, one quite alien (an extra terrestrial's face) -- O'Neil said there wasn't any second-guessing the decision to return with a pumpkin "walk-about," which will coincide with the Stockbridge Halloween Parade on Friday.


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The parade will start at 6 p.m.; the walk-about will give people a chance to see the pumpkins that illuminate the walkway outside of the Stockbridge Library, where children's librarian Vicky Cooper will read stories including "The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything."

No one at the library needs to talk Cooper into carving a pumpkin; she has nearly five decades of experience in the craft.

"I am not that artistic, but I love getting my hands dirty and getting the seeds out," said Cooper, who learned to carve pumpkins from her father.

She added that she bakes the seeds with olive oil and salt for a post-carving snack.

This year, when the Sheffield Historical Society was looking for activities to round out its annual Spiritwalk -- this year it's Sunday at 4 p.m. -- they chose pumpkin carving as an activity that revelers from any generation could support.

"It would have been how people amused themselves [back in the day]," said Historical Society administrator Barbara Dowling. "They wouldn't have used plastic made in China for decorations."

The Historical Society on Sunday will celebrate Halloween in a three-day gala that will include a pumpkin-carving contest with prizes.

Dowling said pumpkin carving is as timeless as "blowing soap bubbles" or "sand painting."

Decades have passed since she carved her first pumpkin, but Dowling still revels in the painstaking attention she puts into a craft she honed as a young child, one who would forgo a large pumpkin that would cost "two whole dollars" so that she could spread her money around and take home three smaller ones.

"I had too many ideas," Dowling said.

The Spiritwalk, meanwhile, will provide a tour of Center Cemetery, and volunteers will act out the roles of the deceased or their associates from Sheffield's past, Dowling said.

In previous years, John Barnard, a general for the Union Army during the Civil War, returned from the grave, Dowling said, and this year visitors can expect to hear about the death of 6-year-old Edward Wright I and the ensuing death of infant Edward Wright II.