Halloween is not traditionally celebrated in France, though in some locations you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite. The area and the age of the population can make a great deal of difference. Children love it, the older generation don’t and those in the middle fall somewhere in between! The more international the area, particularly the more Americans there are, the more the date is celebrated.
I arrived in France in 1997 just as Halloween was taking off. It was effectively imported into the country by large US corporations particularly Disney, using pumpkins, bats, witches etc in their marketing. Disneyland Paris opened in 1992 and by 1995 Halloween was starting to become something of a success in France. I remember being amazed at the way the French seemed to have espoused such an anglosaxon (the traditional enemy) festival – shops were decorated to the nines with spooky stuff and kids started Trick or Treating. (Well, a variation on Trick or Treating as the Trick bit didn’t seem to have been assimilated. It was just a knock on the door followed by a bag in your face and a small voice demanding “bonbons”, there was no question of saying no!) Pâtisseries especially seemed to get in on the act, producing plenty of themed chocolates and cakes, displayed on pumpkins under cobwebs, next to spiders, you get my drift…
The French love to party and love fancy dress so when bars and nighclubs got in on the Halloween act too they were eagerly supported by party-going adults keen to have another excuse to have fun. Unlike in the States where any fancy dress goes, here it’s all about scary, spooky, creepy costumes. Skeletons, vampires, witches, ghosts and zombies rule.
But by the mid noughties Halloween was losing favour. It has been in decline in the last few years as more and more people see it as too American and purely a commercial marketing ploy rather than a real French holiday. It’s certainly true that confectionery manufacturers benefit enormously as sales of sweets go up by 30% in October, in a month that’s otherwise fairly quiet. The whole issue of Halloween borders on controversial here. In general the older generation and traditionalists don’t really understand its point and find it tasteless. They think it is disrespectful to the real French holiday celebrated on the 1st of November, Toussaint, All Saints Day. This is a time when families gather to remember their dead by cleaning and freshening up family tombstones. But Halloween is in fact in some way related to All Saints as the word itself comes from the original mass held on 1st of November which was called Allhallowmass. All Hallow’s Eve (which became shortened to Hallowe’en) was therefore the evening before All Saints…but this isn’t what I set out to write about, it’s for another time!
So back to France. Over the years I’ve seen Halloween get bigger and bigger and then all but disappear. In the last couple of years I’ve noticed it again in the south. I can’t speak of the whole of France obviously, though my research in the media has backed me up that it has lost favour over all. Around me on the Côte d’Azur, a very international area, quite a few shops are decorated, as ever it’s the boulangeries and chocolate makers who really go to town. Pumpkins, which aren’t a particularly popular vegetable here and therefore not usually around, are available to carve and costumes are on sale. The nearby village of Valbonne always gets into the spirit with all the shopkeepers participating in a big Trick or Treat (without the Trick of course!) It’s a small medieval village built on a grid system with narrow cobbled alleyways, almost fully pedestrian-only. The regular straight streets make it easy to navigate and not get lost so it’s a perfect place for kids to wander around unaccompanied getting their haul of bonbons. The atmosphere is usually very festive. Many adults dress up too and the central square, decorated with cobwebs, reverberates to the sound of witches and ghouls drinking merrily in the bars.
I think the Valbonne example is fairly unique and it certainly doesn’t reflect the way France in general celebrates Halloween. I never came across anything like this in all the years I lived in the Paris area, even at the height of its popularity and this year in Paris there’s almost no sign at all that Halloween is about to take place. Apart from the decorated shops, Halloween is really only celebrated on the night of the 31st and very few, if any, houses will be decorated in the run up to it. In fact very few houses will do anything at all unless they are hosting a party and only then might they display a Jack-o-lantern outside. Halloween is always during the school holidays in France so it doesn’t matter what night in the week it falls, children never have to go to school the next day (1st of November is a public holiday too).
To sum up, Halloween isn’t a simple festival in France, it leaves people with conflicting opinions. Children are taught about it in English classes across the country and want to join in. Adults are divided. I wonder whether isolated villages in la France profonde mark the 31st of October in any way? I doubt it. The Côte d’Azur isn’t representative of France as a whole and neither is Paris. I’d love to hear from anyone who lives in a less international area. Is Halloween celebrated where you are?
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