The International Writers Magazine: Halloween in Europe
Another French Halloween
My favorite holiday has always been Halloween. No Christmas for me, with its orgy of gifts and spending, nor Thanksgiving with all that food – and food that no one really likes, no less.
No, I'll take silly costumes and boatloads of sugar, thank you. Halloween always seemed ripe with possibility; you knew something good was going to happen (candy), but you could also be scared, or delighted by your friends' costumes, your neighbor's decorations. The appeal of designing your own costume held its own special promise, too.
My costumes went through a pretty predictable evolution. As a child, I had homemade kitty and princess costumes. One year, I dressed as an equestrian (original, considering I already owned all the clothes), and somehow, my best friend was willing to dress up as a horse and follow along behind me. There was a brief lull in the costumes around junior high, when it was uncool to dress up. The costumes returned in high school and college, when we realized that putting on something funny was a ticket to free candy and a lot of laughs with your friends.
The costumes were one thing, but the actual trick-or-treating was the best part. We weren't terribly close to our neighbors when I was a child, so this afforded a glimpse into the homes and lives to which I was not normally privy. I grew up in Nashville, the capital of country music, and we even had a couple of stars on my street. My parents wouldn't let me knock on Dottie West's door, who, though she didn't put the lights on for Halloween, had once been gracious enough to meet me and sign my album. Porter Wagoner opened his door in a red, fluffy bathrobe, not unlike Hugh Hefner, to the mortification of our parents.
Later, as a parent, I did get disillusioned with American Halloween,. In our first home in Buffalo, my firstborn was too small for candy, so we didn't make the rounds of the houses. It was fun anyway to dress up and wait for the trick-or-treaters. The year before we moved to France, I waited outside in my cat costume, my baby in her dog costume. The high schoolers trick-or-treated, too, often without costume. I remember doing it myself, so I was usually indulgent. That year my patience ran out, when one kid, after mulling over the contents of my giant bowl for a moment, decided to yank it from my hand and run like hell. I called 911 (“Um, no, it's not a REAL emergency, but he STOLE MY BEST CANDY BOWL!”).
I recovered from the outrage and found myself disappointed to not be celebrating this beloved holiday in France. About a decade ago, there was a push to begin Halloween in France, but it never really caught on. A few lonely kids persisted in knocking on doors, but without much success. Gates were closed, lights were extinguished, and the candy we did get was pretty lame- sometimes old peppermints, in already opened bags. I felt that we could do better, even if I had to create it for myself.
So, every year, I participate in some kind of big Halloween party. It's important to me that my children get a sense of the tradition, the absurdity, the decadence. They love, like I did, the anticipation of choosing a costume and even the stomachache at the end of the evening. My daughter has done several years of princess costumes, and my son is making an epic out of his superhero choices. I am, by turn, a pirate, a witch, a ladybug, and again, a pirate, a witch, a ladybug.
The French have been remarkably good humored about all of this. At first, the parents looked at me with horror when I suggested that they too needed to come in costume, but I'm glad to report that they have risen to the occasion, most witchily and ghostily. Looking silly doesn't come as naturally to them as it does to Americans. Nor have they really taken advantage of the candy like Americans,who have little compunction over shoveling tons of sugar into their faces. Dare I say we even relish the opportunity to do this once a year?
Forcing my holiday on the French is the best I can do. We have Grandma send costumes from the big American retailers, so that the children can enjoy choosing what they will be, just like I did. We carve the pumpkins, blow up tons of orange and black balloons, and eat, eat, eat. It's almost enough, the enthusiasm of the participants making up for the lack of local resources. Still, come October, I'll listen to my American friends talk about visiting pumpkin patches and feel a little tug of longing. I'll hear the laughter of children in my memory, singing down the street, erupting into squeals of mock fright. I'll resolve again, to do this year's party even better, to breathe my culture into my children, and to hope I can recreate the magic.
© Amanda Callendrier Ocotber 2010