I knew this year that things wouldn’t be the same. All Saints Day falls on a Tuesday, which means that a lot of people could have a four-day weekend by taking off the day before (most French people do this whenever a holiday falls in such a way – there’s even an expression for it, “faire le pont” – “make the bridge”). With most of our friends planning to go out of town, we decided to move our annual Halloween party to November 5.
So I expected that for me, the actual Halloween would come and go here without much fuss. But I didn’t realize this would be the case for the entire city.
Halloween has never been very popular in France. It’s an Anglo-Saxon holiday, rooted in Celtic and early Christian tradition. Though it’s celebrated to various degrees in countries around the world, France has just never totally embraced it. A few years ago, a real effort was made to “convert” the people here. You could find Halloween costumes and decorations in certain shops, and in some places in the countryside, kids even went trick or treating. It never became a huge holiday, but there was a decent-sized group of people besides expats out there celebrating it in some way.
I’m not one for globalization and uniformity, but I figure, Halloween is fun – why not celebrate it a little? It’s this thinking that made it the huge holiday it is in America, for example: While the customs of Halloween were brought over by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, the majority of the population adopted them, regardless of their own cultural origins.
But I guess the thing is, while French immigrants in the US were able to go with the flow and mix happily with everyone else in the “Melting Pot”, most French people here in France have some major traits that block them from really enjoying the celebration.
For one thing, the French hate embarrassment. They’re afraid to be overly emotive, often hesitant to wear loud colors, and are even scared to speak foreign languages in front of each other, knowing that they have an accent and will be criticized for it. I guess their embarrassment-phobia extends to wearing costumes. Trying to get French adults to don a costume of any kind – even one that’s pretty mild, like a pair of cat ears – is about as difficult as, well, getting an actual cat to wear any kind of Halloween accessory. They just feel uncomfortable.
Luckily, as a black cat, Ali is already Halloween-appropriate.
The past two years, for example, we’ve told our friends to wear a costume to our Halloween party. Most refused to make the effort – and those who did, quickly took off whatever small element of disguise they’d come with. According to this website, nightclubs and bars that advertise Halloween theme nights will only see a small part of participants wear costumes – even if it’s advertised that coming in costume can let you skip the line, have a discount on drinks, or win prizes.
There are some exceptions; in the north of France, for example, Carnaval, held in February, is a month-long event where true die-hards go on a sort of bender, parading and carousing in different towns, dressed in silly costumes – the men typically donning women’s clothing. The ambiance is close to Halloween, but without the scariness or candy.
Images from the 2006 Carnaval in Dunkerque
You’d also think children might be different. It’s true that kids usually like to wear costumes. But since homemade costumes have never been encouraged here, parents think they have to buy anything Halloween-related. If there’s one thing the French hate, it’s “commercial American holidays”. They are pissed off at us for Valentine’s Day, and for the modern concept of Christmas. I’ve written before how I’ve had many French people, including friends and students, remark that Santa Claus was invented by the Coca Cola Company. A simplified history, especially when le père Noël (Father Christmas) and the concept of gift-giving have been around since long before the days of “the pause that refreshes”.
Still, I was able in the past to find certain elements of Halloween lingering around Paris. Last year, I blogged about our first Halloween party, and how I’d been thrilled to come upon decorations and even a witch’s hat for sale at a local store. This year, the boyfriend counted on that to help him find a costume. We headed out on Saturday – and found that the same store had already skipped to Christmas decorations. There was a very small corner with about a dozen costumes hanging limply on a rack, and the boyfriend found something – but there were no decorations. A lot of kids were there, looking at the costumes. But I don’t think they had any trick or treating plans. The first and last time I encountered Parisian trick-or-treaters was about eight years ago.
Part of that might be because the idea of trick-or-treating goes against French ideas about food and sweets. When all else fails, I always think, “Candy!” Not just for Halloween, but for everything. The French as a whole don’t have that reflex. The very idea of accumulating and hoarding candy is more horrifying to them than a scary mask. They’re disgusted and troubled by obesity and anything leading to it. At our Halloween party, where the candy flows like wine, our friends generally only pick at the sugary offerings. My boyfriend usually feels a little uncomfortable that we don’t offer them a sit-down, balanced dinner instead.
So I guess, really, that Halloween’s petering out here was inevitable. With the exception of theme parks like Disneyland Paris, which keep the tradition going, everything else seems to be slowly vanishing. Even in small ways, you can watch it fade. There’s never been a lot of Halloween-focused TV programming here, but the channel M6 used to play the movie “Halloween” every year at midnight on the eponymous date. A few years back, they stopped doing it. A quick look at TV listings for tonight shows that this October 31 is no exception.
The jack o’lantern situation this year was also pretty bleak. While gardening stores are selling pumpkins like those we know in the U.S. (in general, French pumpkins are squat and uneven things that look like what you’d see in an old illustration from “Cinderella” – lovely, but not good for carving), they're awfully expensive. Storeowners aren't stupid: a slew of expats longing for Halloween will still snatch these pumpkins up at any price. I prefer to go to our local market for our future jack o’lanterns. In past years, I’ve found lovely potirons (winter squash) that were perfect...except for being green instead of orange. And last year, I actually found orange-colored potirons that looked like regular American pumpkins -- though we kind of missed the green ones, which had ended up looking really cool.
This year, though, I almost had to come home empty-handed.
There were very few carvable squash for sale. I raced among the stalls like a madwoman, terrified at the prospect of a jack o’lantern-less Halloween. Finally, I came upon some “potimarrons” (red kuri squash) that will have to do, though they don’t stand very well on their own.
One of this year's soon-to-be jack o'lanterns
I got home with my heavy burden and smiled. Then I realized that when we were repainting the living room earlier this year, I’d put our Halloween decorations away somewhere and had no idea where they were. I spent the next few hours digging through the storage area under the lofted bed, searching. Maybe it was symbolic....
A Happy Halloween to all, and please enjoy it all the more, for those of us who can't celebrate it!