Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween à la française

Several holidays have all but disappeared from my life since I moved to Paris. Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are unknown in France, and despite the best efforts of Disneyland Paris, the French are still reluctant to embrace Halloween. One wonders why, since a holiday whose principal traditions are dressing in something ridiculous and eating sickening amounts of bad candy should catch on here, right?

[Cue lightning flash and the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower against a full moon.]


But like a holiday amputee, at the right times of year I continue to feel the itch to celebrate, even if I can't figure out the logistics of procuring a pumpkin in Paris or of cooking a turkey dinner with all the fixings on a workday Thursday afternoon.

The urge to celebrate was terrible on Friday, since the weather was just right for Halloween: dark and gray with a persistent, cold drizzle that would discourage anyone from staying outside too long. Anyone, that is, but a determined trick-or-treater.

Just like I remember.

On the bus on the way to work, I treated a politely interested colleague to memories of Halloweens past.

"There was the year when the pumpkin my father and I had spent so much time carving was found smashed against the front door the next morning. Oh, and the year when, dressed in my brand-new cat costume, I was mistaken for a rabbit..."

A little later around the coffee machine, my colleagues with children discussed the Halloween phenomenon, a little bemused. They had put in an effort and bought costumes for the kids, and one had even carved a small, thick-fleshed organic potiron squash one year since it was the closest thing to a pumpkin she could get her hands on. "It wasn't easy to carve," she complained. But it appears that interest in Halloween has leveled off recently, and although some kids still dress up and trawl the neighborhood for candy, it is once more a non-holiday.

It was different back in 2003 when I moved to Paris. Stores everywhere were advertising costumes and decorations. Our town's city hall printed fliers encouraging neighbors to prepare for trick-or-treaters. I bought a bag of candy and enthusiastically made up an orange-and-black construction paper sign with a pumpkin and a "Bienvenue Trick-or-Treaters" and taped it to our apartment door.

That year, no one came. Not a single ring at the door. Since then we've spent a Halloween or two at the family house in Troyes where my in-laws always manage to find pumpkins to carve. One year I carved a drunk jack-o-lantern with a jovial expression and the glowing outline of a bottle and glass of Champagne (the terroir of Troyes, after all). The small group of children who stopped by were more impressed by our gourd artistry than by the candy we managed to dig up.

Our trio of jack-o-lanterns, with mine upper left.
Note the Champagne cork nose.

Last year my father and stepmother bought le Petit a baby pumpkin suit, and I couldn't resist propping him up on the couch for a picture next to a jack-o-lantern that I carved for the occasion. This year my father found le Petit a costume at Costco, and I duly dressed him up after we arrived back home from the nanny's yesterday evening. Le Petit hadn't the slightest clue what the late-day wardrobe change was about, but once distracted, didn't much care. As he ran around the apartment dressed as a honey bee and spreading tufts of black nylon fur behind him, we took pictures for posterity.

A little bit later, le Petit was eating dinner, his costume was hidden under an IKEA industrial-strength baby bib, and I had all but forgotten what day it was when we were startled by our wake-the-dead doorbell. A group of trick-or-treaters had shown up after all, and we had absolutely nothing to give them.

I entertained them at the door while my husband rifled through the kitchen cabinets looking for candy.

"Oh, I see two fantômes, a sorcière, and a... princess?" I hazarded. The girl smiled broadly and shook her head. I didn't even try to identify the pint-sized superheros accompanying them. Meanwhile, my husband eventually produced two granola bars that I'd picked up after the Paris-Versailles road race last month. Faces dropped, but the bars were reluctantly accepted anyway.

Clearly, we're part of the problem. With such miserable trick-or-treat offerings, the holiday will never catch on.

"Uhh, I'm sorry, we're not very well-prepared this year," I apologized lamely. "But come back next year and we'll have something better, I promise you!"

But they had already shifted their focus to the apartment across the hall where they might have better luck. There is at least one advantage to a Parisian Halloween: the takings may be small, but the distance from doorbell-to-doorbell is short.

And you don't even have to trudge through piles of soggy leaves in the dark with a flashlight.


caramama said...

You should throw a Halloween party for the kids! That will get it catch on for sure!

It's my favorite holiday (as you know), so I couldn't imagine not celebrating it in another country. I would still probably go all out and be that wierd American! ;-)

Wendy said...

I'm an American transplant to Paris, too, and we have a party every year with other Anglos. The kids (who are 3, so only just 'getting it'), trick or treat from room to room. Next year, I am determined to do a real trick or treat at the shops on our street. (Obviously I'll warn them first! And probably supply them with candy.)