Hands down: Halloween. How can I get the French to love it as I do so my kids can have Halloween like I remember it?
Having decided a while back to settle permanently in France, I usually find myself on the receiving end of intense interrogation when visiting family and friends back in the states.
Wanting to know this or that about life in Paris, about France in general, or what living with a Frenchman (and raising a Franco-American child) is like, the questions tend to be far-reaching and all over the place.
What do you miss most?
All over the place, that is, with one exception. The thing I get asked every time – and by everyone – is this: What do you miss most about living in America? And aside from the obvious (not getting to see my family nearly as often as I would like), I can tell you that my answer comes to many as a surprise. Halloween.
O.K., so sometimes it takes these people a while to fully grasp that the French don’t really ‘do’ Halloween, but when it finally does sink in, I inevitably get showered with heartfelt sympathy because (having grown up with the holiday, as I did) they just know how important it is. Nothing, and I mean nothing, makes me homesick like October in a foreign country.
Memories of bobbing for apples (never successfully, mind you, but just show me a person who has managed to grab a floating apple with her teeth…), carving jack-o-lanterns (not very well, but hey…), and making costumes out of any old thing (the better for encouraging creativity, right?) are, in fact, the closest I ever get to actual nostalgia.
So you can understand, then, how thrilled I was when the concept of Halloween indeed started making its way across the Atlantic, just a few short years ago. Yes!, I remember thinking, My kids won’t have to grow up without it after all!
Halloweens of childhood
Because the thought of my own children reaching adulthood with no real concept of caramel apples or popcorn balls, of haunted houses or trick-or-treating, and without ever having seen ‘It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown’ on television as I did, every year of my life, well…let’s just say it was a hard pill for me to swallow, such fun were the Halloweens of my childhood.
And you can also understand, perhaps, my disappointment – and disbelief – at the French reception of our beloved holiday, which could be called somewhat chilly, at best. How can that be? I wondered. It’s so much fun. What’s not to love? And the oft-repeated response — that Halloween is just another example of a heavily ‘commercialized’ concept, of American ‘cultural imperialism’ — left this Francophile somewhat defensive at times, I am not ashamed to admit.
Later, when I began teaching a course in American Culture to French students at a university near Paris, I broached the subject of Halloween celebrations and, after hearing the above almost-rote response from many of them, began to slowly peel back the layers of their sentiments.
Commercial? Commercial in what way? In the same way that Christmas is commercial? Cultural imperialism? In what way? And so on.
And while most of my students had indeed seen Halloween decorations and costumes (not like the American ones, but decorations and costumes nonetheless) in local shops, and had taken notice of special Halloween events (events which, in reality, resembled nothing I was used to), hosted by local bars and clubs, none were aware of the historical roots or cultural significance of the holiday in the United States. Or, in fact, that the holiday even has historical roots or cultural significance to Americans.
None, of course, had gone trick-or-treating as a child (how could they, in this country of secured front yards and digicode-protected buildings?), had ever had the pleasure of a real haunted house (I’ve personally tried, and failed, to find one here), had any idea as to what we actually do with all those pumpkins (No, we don’t eat them, we carve them! Well, o.k., sometimes we toast the seeds…), or could figure out why every person at a costume party shouldn’t come dressed as either a witch or a vampire. (Try dressing as a witch every year of your life and see how boring it gets!)
As I listened to their questions and concerns, I could see that – in a way – they were absolutely right; Halloween as presented to the French is indeed very commercialised.
While the ‘product’ aspect of the holiday has made an appearance here, the historical and fun aspects really haven’t. And though my students clearly disliked the idea of Halloween as a commercial endeavor, it soon became evident that their distaste for the celebration stemmed from not having a clue as to how it is really ‘done’ by those who know and love it. No one has thrown them much of a bone, so to speak.
Which is a darn shame, in my opinion, because other than a few dollars spent here and there on haunted-house entrance fees and a bit of candy for neighborhood children, I am hard-pressed to remember any real spending on this particular holiday, even throughout my university years. And, in spite of the little stickers I sometimes see on pumpkins here — detailing the history of the Jack-O-Lantern and how to carve one — I now find myself wondering if this is a holiday whose true meaning can be exported at all.
Wanting to give my students a taste of what fun a Halloween party could be, I ended with a lesson — instead of the usual quiz — on how to do the Monster Mash. They seemed to love it.
Am I completely off-base, then, in thinking that there might be a glimmer of hope?
Photo credit: Tim Fields (pumpkin).