Halloween in France is a relatively new thing. That time of the year is quite dismal: most of the time it’s grey and cold… Winter is coming… The French are not necessarily in a celebrating mood. And the craze that Halloween can be in the United Kingdom or other European countries is slow to take in France.
Yet, you’d think Halloween would be something the French would have welcomed: we are keen to dress up: if Mardi Gras is no longer what it used to be in France, French kids love to play dress-up, birthday parties are often costumed, and even the adults enjoy a good costumed party occasionally.
Furthermore, it’s traditional in France to think about death at that time of the year
November 1st is a Catholic holiday: All Saints Day. But whether you are a practising Catholic or not, in France, la Toussaint has become a strong familial tradition.
French people traditionally gather to honour the dead of the family, visit cemeteries, and freshen up of tomb flowers.
Now that people don’t always live next to the cemetery where their family members rest, that part of the tradition is less active, but people still tend to get together for a family reunion.
At that time of the year, kids are enjoying the relief of the first vacations of the schoolyear, actually called “Les vacances de la Toussaint”. They often go and stay at their grandparents during this vacation.
So, family reunion, visit to the cemetery and refreshing the flowers, kids taking time to visit their grandparents… These were pretty much the traditions in France at that time of the year.
Until the 1990s when things started to change.
In the Nineties, young French hipsters trying to mimic US TV shows started to have costume parties for Halloween.
Halloween parties became quite the thing, and bars and restaurants took up the trend, especially pubs which were quite fashionable in Paris at that time.
The stores soon saw the commercial opportunity Halloween presented: the chance to get rid of the unsold Mardi Gras costumes and makeup and get rid of their stock of pumpkins…
Even more so than the stores, English teachers in French schools saw in Halloween a great way to teach new English and French vocabulary to their young pupils. What kid can resist candies?
Little by little, school enticed the kids to go trick-or-treat, costumed parades were sometimes organized by towns… And everybody started to know what Halloween was.
One could think Halloween was then well on its way to becoming a French tradition. Or was it?
In my small 8.000 inhabitant town of Paimpol, Brittany, supermarkets have a special Halloween stand: mostly all sorts of pumpkins, masks, costumes, makeup…
The shopkeeper’s association organizes a parade for kids in the town centre around 4PM, and the shops of this area give candies for the kids. There’s a costume contest.
But then that’s it.
I live very close from the town centre, in a very residential street, with kids. I always buy candy just in case. And end up eating them myself. No trick-o-treaters ever come knocking at my door.
As I mentioned before, the French like a good costume. So, you would think they would easily adopt Halloween.
Yet, what the French don’t like is to be disturbed at home. Especially at nightfall and even more so by strangers!
Many people don’t quite understand why they’re supposed to get up from their sofa, open their door and distribute candies to little monsters.
So the French are resisting. No special decoration for Halloween in residential areas. No candies.
Thank goodness, in France the “trick” part of trick-or-treat doesn’t exist. I believe that if candy-less, frustrated kids started to egg French houses, there would be huge riots.
Maybe the French reluctance to Halloween comes from the fact that Halloween is really scary in France. It’s all about scary costumes. No fairies, no princesses... Maybe a Harry Potter or two… All this may be a bit disturbing to the French.
So even though Halloween might be celebrated in many countries in Europe, France (like that little village in the Asterix comic books) will most likely keep resisting for many years to come...
Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French-language expert, French audiobook author and the co-founder of FrenchToday.com