Here it is:
Halloween is a) a charming holiday full of fun for les enfants
b) yet another boot of American cultural imperialism stomping on and mercilessly crushing the French windpipe of national pride?
If you guessed b, that's right! You just won this big sack of tiny bags of Gummi Bears that I DIDN'T get to give away on Halloween night because no trick or treaters showed up. Nope. Not a one.
Now, ten years ago, when I last lived in France, I wouldn't have been surprised. Halloween was simply not on the holiday radar in France. Sure, a couple of stores at the new Etrembiere shopping mall tried a "top down" approach, advertising a few Halloween themed products. These had to be accompanied by a small brochure explaining what the heck Halloween was. I sure wish I'd saved the one I picked up all those years ago. It carefully explained how, for example, on Halloween night, Americans enjoy eating big bowls of hearty pumpkin soup. And it was chock-full of lots of other "information'. (For any non-Americans reading this, Halloween is NOT a holiday where one consumes healthy vegetable soups. You eat CANDY, lots of CANDY. And you use your pumpkin to make a jack-o-lantern, NOT dinner. )
Back then , I did some Halloween celebrating with my kids at home. We made decorations, carved a jack-o-lantern and Tya (who was the only one old enough to know what was going on) did trick or treating in the house. Yes, she got all dressed up, took a bag and knocked at the dining room door. I stood behind it and opened it with mock surprised each time, doling out pieces of candy. She was only 4 or 5 at the time and thought it was delightful, bless her little heart.
But there was no "Halloween awareness" in general in the community
So, when we arrived here in France recently, I had no expectations of anything being different. That's why I was very skeptical when the twins started coming home from school in October telling me that kids celebrate Halloween here! Right here in the Haute Savoie trick or treaking would be had!
I just couldn't quite wrap my mind around it. "Are you sure?" I'd ask.
They were sure. The other kids were all talking about it.
But when I went to the shops I saw very little evidence. No costumes in sight and only a couple of places with small displays of candy.
Then, the week before Halloween, I went to their school one afternoon to help out with the English lesson. (Note: The village council no longer is willing to pay for an English teacher to come in, so it has fallen upon the teacher to give the language lessons. This is HUGELY unreasonable, as the woman is already teaching a mixed class of 3rd/4th/5th graders in this little one-room school. And now she has to teach them all English, which she really doesn't speak very well. She sounds like a French person that has had a few years of English lessons (which is what she is) NOT an English teacher.)
This was the first time I'd come to help, so I didn't know what to expect but I had vaguely thought that the teacher would be directing the activity. I would just intervene from time to time, helping with pronunciation. But there was a basic misunderstanding, as she seemed to think that just being a native speaker of English must mean that you are a fully qualified English teacher.
I walked in and the teacher sat down and looked at me. The kids sat there and looked at me.
It was a real 'WTF' moment, if I may be honest and a bit vulgar.
Now, I'm not saying that I couldn't possibly teach English to a bunch of 8 to 10 year olds. But I had no idea what they'd been studying or what their general level was.
I ended up asking them simple questions, getting them to tell me what their ages were, their names, etc. I did my best. After a looooong half-hour of that, the teacher asked if I would explain, in French, the holiday of Halloween.
I talked about the origins of the holiday, its name, and some of the traditions. Of course, I haven't celebrated Halloween in the USA for about 20 years, so all I could really tell them was how it was for me as a child. Lots of family and friend in the USA had been telling me that the holiday has changed dramatically there. It's all for adults and all about drinking. Hardly any kids trick or treat now. But I didn't go into that. I talked about trick or treating, making jack-o-lanterns and wearing your costume to school.
Then the teacher said "You know, a few years ago, people here were crazy for Halloween."
I was surprised, to put it mildly. I thought I'd misunderstood.
"Really! The shops were full of costumes and candy. The children went trick or treating. Parents even sent notes to the school, asking what we would do to celebrate Halloween in class!"
It all got to be too much, in her opinion. It was beginning to replace Carnival! Quelle horreur!
Mais oui! The kids were dressing up and celebrating Halloween, but ignoring the traditional French holiday just before Lent. It was then the teacher's turn to get all nostalgic about the happy Carnival celebrations of her youth.
"Ah yes! We'd dress up in the afternoon and go from house to house. People would give us eggs and flour. Maybe sugar. Then we would all go to the rectory and the older children would make crepes for us. Such fun! A real French tradition"
Well gosh. The attractions of an entire sack full of candy really dim when you put it that way. Eggs and flour. Maybe sugar. Then you get a crepe.
Boy Howdy, you folks really know how to party!
Really, it was SO hard not to laugh.
Then she got to the heart of the matter. "Halloween was replacing our French traditions, so lots of people protested. Everything was getting too Americanized, people said. They wrote letters to the shops. They stopped the kids trick or treating and tried to get the focus back on Carnival. And it worked. Now hardly anyone celebates Halloween."
And a quick search on the internet confirms this. There was a short-lived vogue, but by November 2006 you start to find articles like "French press declares Halloween dead".
So all that talk the twins heard was more wishful thinking than reality. Some of the kids remembered trick or treating from a few years back and were hoping (wistfully, uselessly) for another crack at it.
I'm just glad that my kids have a legimate cultural right to Halloween, because Carnival is (sorry) extremely lame, as far as holidays for kids go.
But there's definitely a mean-spirited side to all this: People scared by increasing globalisation and "Americanisation" struck out at the easiest target. Maybe they can't punish governments or business leaders for the way things are going, but they can take candy from babies...