Friday, October 30, 2009

Trick or Treat or Traison?



Halloween is having a hard time in France. It only showed up a few years ago, and already it seems that the thrill is gone. It just never really clicked. At first, it was perceived as simply another attempt at American cultural imperialism. “It’s all about making money!” was the complaint I heard most frequently. I tried to point out that there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made on Halloween, unless you were selling candy, but nobody wanted to listen. Although it's true, at first it certainly seemed that the decorations manufacturers of the world were cleaning up on this one. Even though nobody here seemed to have any idea what Halloween was really about, everyone rushed to decorate their stores, particularly bakers, who slopped orange and black icing on every cake in sight.


But this year, there is not even one pumpkin-shaped Halloween cookie at my local boulangerie. What happened? One friend gave a socio-political explanation: Halloween appeared in France during the Bush administration, which made it a symbol of Bush-ism, and that’s why it was rejected. Now that Obama’s in, Halloween is out. That seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I think it has more to do with the fact that it’s just not a French holiday, and now that the novelty has worn off, nobody cares. Maybe they’re waiting for the next American import. Thanksgiving? Columbus Day?


Living in a bourgeois Parisian suburb, I’ve been informed that there is yet another reason: religion. Practicing Catholics here are grossed out by the paganism of the holiday. All those ghouls and goblins making fun of death on the night before All Saint’s Day! I try to explain that yes, in fact, that’s the whole point, that it is an archaic holiday that is directly linked to All Saint’s Day. According to Wikipedia, Halloween has its origins in an ancient Celtic festival having to do with spirits passing from one world to the next. No one seems to appreciate this explanation. “We don’t celebrate pagan holidays in France,” one neighbor primly informed me. “We celebrate Catholic ones.” So much for the separation of church and state. “What about May 1?” I asked. “Oh, well, that’s different.”


Personally, I much prefer that pagan holidays be celebrated nationally than religious ones. Pagan holidays have the great advantage of being open to one and all and taken seriously by no one. Halloween is fun, after all, and is basically about kids dressing up and eating candy. I mean, come on—what’s not to like?

15 comments:

StyleSpy said...

Unfortunately, while Halloween used to just be about kids dressing up and eating candy, now it's become an excuse for adults to dress up and get drunk and behave in ways they probably wouldn't if they weren't wearing a disguise. It's my least favorite holiday and you're better off without it, as far as I'm concerned.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand? Thanksgiving I highly recommend.

Margie Rynn said...

Me too, I've always liked Thanksgiving. Non-religious and all about stuffing your face. I know that the adult approach to Halloween can get out of hand, but I wonder if that depends on where you live. We were in a California suburb last year at this time and Trick or Treating was pretty wholesome...

Gator said...

If I remember correctly, Halloween was started in 98 (even though it started to pick up some steam in 96 and 97) so before Bush had ever been mentioned once by the French media.

If I remember correctly (I was in the US back then, so I'm not sure of the details), it was also France Telecom that put it in front of the media scene, so yes it was a commercial ploy.

Finally, there are about 10 practicing Catholics in France, so their argument can't be valid for the whole population. (
And btw, next time you have this conversation with them, you can mention that every single catholic holiday is a variation of a pagan holiday : as you've mentioned Halloween and All Saint's Day have the same origins, Christmas is just Winter Solstice, Easter the Spring Equinox, St John's day is Summer solstice, and let's not even mention Chandeleur which has always been more pagan than catholic.

Back to Halloween, it never took root in France -despite many companies efforts- simply because you don't simply "install" a holiday in a foreign culture.

It was popular for a moment because it was "new" and the media/advertisers surfed that Zeitgeist, but the novelty has wore off...

(and believe me I wish it had been different, it was my favorite holiday in the US, but things just don't work this way)

Margie Rynn said...

Gator - how could France Telecom have been responsible for Halloween in France? Are you saying that behind "Orange" there was a Halloween marketing scheme? Given the gruesome rash of suicides at France Telecom, it almost sounds feasible...but that would be the Halloween horror movie, not the holiday itself...

If there are only 10 practicing Catholics in France, I've already met them all and they seem to have lots of friends. Perhaps the die-hards are not the majority, but the Church is a very real presence in French culture. Ask anyone who lives in France and isn't Cathlolic.

Gator said...

Margie, I don't remember the details, but yeah it coincided with France Telecom launching Orange, and they covered the Champs de Mars with pumpkins and stuff like that.

As far as Catholicism is concerned, it's really active in a few "niches" of the French population, the Parisian bourgeoisie (like where you live.. Is it Neuilly?) being one of them.

And no, the Church has no influence whatsoever on the French culture and society anymore (it did, but it's over).

(and btw the way, I'm French, living in France and I'm not a Catholic, even if I'm from "Catholic descent")

Margie Rynn said...

Neuilly???!! I think not!

Perhaps it's because you are French and from of Catholic origins that you don't see it, and I think many French people would agree with you, but as an American Jew living in France, I can tell you, 10 or so centuries of the Church don't go away just like that. Maybe people don't go to mass much, but it's present in the culture. And when you don't have Catholic origins...I don't want to get into trouble here, and people are generally very tolerant, but, well, it's a little weird.

Gator said...

For Neuilly, just a random guess, the "bourgeois Parisian suburb" thing.

Now, don't get me wrong, the Catholic culture is sure everywhere (this is called history (insert smiley here)), but it must not be confused with the Catholic religion (and I know Americans have trouble grasping the difference... I'm not being sarcastic here, just talking from experience), that you'll nowadays find only in very bourgeois or very rural areas, and it's definitely not the cause for Halloween not "working" in France, because very few people still care about religious holidays...
Even Christmas is about Santa Claus and presents and not about Jesus for 90% of the French population (Jews, Muslims and Atheists included)

doomed to be fabulous said...

I have to agree with Gator on this one. There are many Catholic societies that have no problem celebrating the dead in a macabre way (Mexico's "Day of the Dead" comes to mind, with the dancing skeletons).

I think France hasn't picked up Halloween simply because it's rare for a society to adopt a new cultural holiday so arbitrarily (especially a holiday that has no connection to its own culture). These celebrations usually take decades, if not centuries, to develop and take hold. When was the last time the U.S. took on a new cultural holiday?

I, for one, would find it quite odd to have people (or corporations) encourage me to participate in "traditions" that aren't traditions for me at all.

Gator said...

Doomed to be faboulous, the US is a special case, as it doesn't have millenia old traditions for obvious reasons, but the country picks up new traditions quite easily with each new massive wave of immigrants (St Patrick's Day a Century ago, Cinco de Mayo nowadays).

And don't be too sure about not accepting "traditions" that are pushed by corporations. Santa Claus wouldn't be Santa Claus without Coca Cola (he still would be St Niklas and would be celebrated on Dec. 6th)

Larry Davis said...

I was living in France in 1998 and I can attest to a small group of avant-garde Halloweenistes who appeared the the French media. My wife was excited by the idea that such an American "holiday" had arrived in the country. I remember reading the usual anti-US rants in the news (as nicely put in the blog post).

At the time, (Le Figaro, I believe) published an amusing interview with random Parisians and I remember an elderly woman saying that she was upset that Halloween, a nice French Celtic celebration, was being sold to the French as an American holiday with, mon Dieu!, fattening candy and garish costumes. It was the first time I heard a defense of "French Celtic" culture before. Amusing to say the least.

I prefer the fattening candy of Halloween to the boring food and conversation (usually with family) of Thanksgiving. I didn't miss one bit when we were in France.

Margie Rynn said...

"French Celtic Culture"! That's a new one on me. I love it.

Scotsman said...

I had no idea that Halloween wasn't celebrated in France, I always assummed that it started in the Celtic countries, worked its way through Europe and only then was it taken on so enthusiastically in the US.

I guess I was wrong. Again.

Margie Rynn said...

I'm not sure France is usually considered a Celtic country...but I have heard that Halloween used to be celebrated in Brittany, which has a strong Celt identity. I always thought Halloween came from the UK, but these days I'm not even sure it's celebrated there.

Scotsman said...

When I think Celtic countries, I think Scotland, Ireland, & Wales, and maybe a couple of French regions back in the day.

Starman said...

Those who think Halloween is dead in Paris, haven't been to the Marais on Halloween.