Halloween is a Celtic holiday that began in Ireland. The Celts believed that the border between this world and the other world was thinnest at the end of summer. People believed that by disguising themselves they could avoid harmful spirits coming from the other world. They also believed that jack-o’-lanterns would scare away the spirits. But to modern American kids, Halloween just means fun (and a little candy).
Halloween is visible in France, but you may have to look for it. In my experience, many French people think Halloween is simply a commercial enterprise. Many people do not realize that Halloween is a central part of American culture nor what a big role it plays in American life, from decorating your house to decorating your dog.
In the mid-90s when I first arrived in France, Halloween was first making its appearance. There was even a series of ads for a large mobile phone operator showing a huge pumpkin with the caption “allo oui”. However, by 2000, when I was working in Paris, Halloween seemed to have completely disappeared. So I went out and bought a huge pumpkin that I carved in my office on the Champs Elysées.
In 2007, the year my daughter was 1, I sent her to daycare dressed in a pumpkin outfit. That evening, I was caught off guard when my doorbell rang at 5pm and there were some spartanly dressed ghostly-zombies asking for candy. “Donnez-moi des bonbons”. Despite their rather un-American (and slightly rude) plea for candy, I quickly dug through my cabinets and found some chocolate-covered waffles. They seemed happy enough.
Halloween is the end all and be all American kids’ holiday. It is to American kids what Carnival is to many European kids. It is very much the equivalent to the carnival celebration here in Northern France: candy, costumes and parades. Halloween is the kids’ holiday par excellence, the one time of the year when kids are allowed to dress crazy, act completely silly, and eat tons of candy.
Although the overall atmosphere of Halloween may not exist in France, as there are no costume parades at school, no trick or treating, no jack-o’-lanterns outside, it is fairly easy to bring the Halloween feeling home. My very French daughter – who is now 4 and a half – anticipates Halloween every year because we have actively included it in our family culture.
- We read books about Halloween. There are books for all ages…
- We decorate the house with pumpkins, ghosts and bats.
- We sing Halloween songs, using my childhood repertoire.
- We carve pumpkins. Although real citrouille are sometimes difficult to find, we always manage to find something to carve. Potimarron tend to be more readily available, but their skin is much thinner than American pumpkins which makes carving difficult. Don’t forget to freeze the pulp for your Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and roast the seeds to snack on.
- We spread the joy. Have a Halloween party for big and small kids, even if you are the only American in your entourage.
- We eat candy. I keep a bag of candy by the front door, just in case. We have never actually gone trick-or-treating in France ourselves.
- We bring Halloween to school and work. If your child’s teacher (or your boss) is open to it, turn the classroom into a pumpkin decorating workshop. You can use real pumpkins or make them out of paper. Everyone likes candy. And you may be pleasantly surprised by how interested your coworkers are in your American culture.
- We dress up. On Halloween, my kids and I always wear Halloween clothes to mark the occasion,even if there is no party. Pulling a costume together is easy. Last year, my daughter wanted to be a pumpkin so I dug around on the internet and was saved by Martha Stewart and her easy pillowcase costume which I sewed by hand.
And whatever you do, don’t be ashamed of looking silly.
That’s the spirit of Halloween!
Check out our tips on how-to raise American kids in France, and keep your traditions alive.