October 28, 2010
Alysa Salzberg

T.S. Elliot wrote that April is the cruelest month. But for me, the cruelest month is October.


The autumn Parisian wind is a biting, nasty thing that sends icy draughts down your clothes no matter what you do. What’s worse, the French enthusiasm for Halloween is even colder.

Halloween began as a Celtic holiday, but though the Gauls, ancestors of the modern-day French, were a Celtic people, the celebration never stuck here. Today, due to the influence of American films and TV shows, you might see Halloween decorations in the occasional storefront. Disney and now the Parc Astérix do a Halloween theme for the month of October (I’ve never been to either of these places at this time of year, so not sure how it goes). But that’s really it.

I’ve been told that in some areas of France, some kids do dress up, and even try to go trick or treating. Stories like this usually end with their teller explaining that of course the children never go to the homes of elderly people, who've never celebrated this holiday: their costumes would probably scare those senior citizens to death. Here in Paris, I have a vague memory of some neighborhood kids knocking at the door of my old apartment years ago, grinning sheepishly and seeing what they could get out of me. I think they were a bit scared by how excited I was as I broke off parts of a chocolate bar for them. Maybe I turned them off this newfound activity; that was the first and last time I’ve seen Parisian kids trick-or-treating.

I love Halloween, and I miss it terribly. It’s a holiday that celebrates so many of the things I hold dear: chocolate, candy, dressing up and make-believe. Also, black cats.

Our beloved Ali...looking a bit belligerent.

Here in Paris, Halloween comes and goes like a ghost. Now and then you get a vision of what could be, a small transparent outline of something more – but then, just as you’re convinced it’s real, it vanishes. And so, as my friends and family across the Atlantic prepare their candy bags and costume parties, I feel homesick and mopey.

Last year, I decided to do something about it. I would have a Halloween party.

It wasn’t easy to plan. First, there was my boyfriend’s reaction to the idea. He’s never had a problem with America before. Fact: he loves Hollywood movies; Fact: he speaks excellent English and can even imitate a New Jersey accent; Fact: he’s addicted to Taco Bell; Fact: he’s with me. But suddenly, he started to get all up in arms about globalization. Here I was, he claimed, trying to force my culture upon him and our French friends.

“But it’s not cultural" I exclaimed, "It’s just eating candy and watching scary movies and making shapes in pumpkins! And wearing costumes! Who wouldn’t want to do those things?”

Still, he remained grouchy.

On the other hand, I had some amazing luck: a store near our house was inexplicably selling Halloween decorations! I threw garlands of crepe witches and ghosts into my basket, squealed with delight when I saw cotton spider webs! But what almost made me pass out was…a witch’s hat!!!! I love dressing up like a witch. I think it’s because when I was little, I’d always dreamt I was a witch and I just had to learn the spells. Also, I look pretty good in hats.

I could have bought a witch’s hat many times on trips to America, but they’re very hard to transport without getting broken or torn en route. But here was one just a short walk from my apartment. I didn’t need any other elements for this costume, either: I already had a black lace quasi-Victorian dress and a pair of pointy, vintage-looking boots in my closet. Perfect.

Things were going along swimmingly, and when I came home and showed my boyfriend the decorations, he actually perked up a bit. It turns out he’s one of the best cotton-spider-web placers I’ve ever encountered.

As the party neared, though, something seemed to be worrying him. Finally, a few days before, he unburdened his heavy soul: “What are we going to make for dinner?”

I looked at him in utter surprise. “I- It’s Halloween. You don’t really eat a meal for Halloween! You just eat candy!”

“Just candy?” He was incredulous.

candy 1

Best. Dinner. Ever! 

“Well…I guess maybe popcorn if we’re watching a scary movie.” (I’d just found a grocery store where they were selling the microwaveable, salted variety – still a novelty here.) “And finger foods and things.”

“But…dinner….” My French boyfriend was imploding. Like many of his countrymen, he could not envision a soirée without some kind of prepared meal.

“Pizza?” I mused.

In the end, we settled on homemade crepes. This was not a victory for Team Sugar, by the way – the French put all kinds of things in crepes, and ours would be made-to-order, with filling choices like ground beef, eggs, cheese, ham, and garnishes.

Meanwhile, finding pumpkins to carve into jack o’lanterns was proving an almost impossible quest. Most of the pumpkins I’ve seen in France look like something right out of a fairytale: large and low and pale orange, with their surfaces divided into thick ridges. Beautiful, but very difficult to turn into a good jack o’lantern.

But then, I had another unexpected bit of luck. I was strolling around the outdoor market near our apartment, when I spied what looked like the variety of pumpkins I know and love from the U.S. There were only a few left, and this seemed to be the only stall where they were being sold. The man told me they were called “potiron”, which is different from “citrouille”, the French word for “pumpkin.” In case you haven’t already figured this out, I’m not exactly an expert on healthy foods. But according to my research, “potiron” translates to “fruit pumpkin” or “winter squash.” Regardless, I bought three.

There was just one thing that was slightly off. I suppose if you’re familiar with “fruit pumpkins” or “winter squash”, you probably know already: the potirons weren’t orange, but green.

potiron closeup

They were easy to carve, though, as we found out the weekend before Halloween, when two of our closest friends, who couldn’t come to the official party, stopped by for a visit. We’d told them to come in costume, and they’d found cat ears (for her) and a witch’s hat (for him). They soon took the costumes off, though. I think that’s the thing: maybe a lot of French people don’t really like Halloween, because they spend so much time being afraid of looking or seeming ridiculous. This is one of their national pastimes.

Our friends seemed to really enjoy the pumpkin carving. Although they mourned the fact that the potiron innards weren’t going to be used for soup.

carving potiron

It is sort of weird, come to think of it, that so many of us in the States – and, according to statistics I’ve read, other places in the Halloween-celebrating world – just toss out the pumpkin’s insides.

After a brief moment of silence, we got down to business. Soon, we had a lovely jack o’lantern (or Jacques o'lantern, if you will) that was as green as the bottle of wine our guests had brought with them.

carving potiron

Though they're both symbols of Halloween, Ali seems terrified of his new friend Jacques.

afraid of jack o lantern

The potiron jack o'lantern looks proudly upon the homemade Italian meal we'd prepared that day. He has a lot in common with my boyfriend.

Though it didn't look like a typical jack o'lantern color-wise, we actually came to prefer Jacques' colors. We’d planned to carve the others at the official Halloween party, but we never got around to it. So they remained, symbols of autumn…in green. Interestingly, as the man at the stall had promised, they stayed in good condition for about a year. The only thing that changed was their color, which faded from green into orange.

Our Halloween party went very well. I stand by what I said before: No matter what culture you come from, eating candy and chips is fun, and watching a (not too) scary movie with popcorn is, too. As far as costumes go, none of our guests came decked out in full regalia, but they all made efforts, the most popular costume being soccer jerseys. People loved our decorations, and were delighted by what I’d done with the candy and snacks.

These chips shaped like ghosts are delightfully called "Monster Munch." They're sold year-round here in France.

candy flower

candy hidden msg

Can you read the secret message?

candy pretzels monster munch

My boyfriend really had been won over, maybe because he realized this was a good excuse to wear one of his Napoleonic battle reenactment costumes. Unbeknownst to me, he’d found some Halloween ambiance music, and we let it play through the apartment. Our hallway, with its shelves of real swords from the Napoleonic army, was shrouded in cotton spider webs and lit only by candles: a mini-haunted house.

For the dinner, there’d been a change of plans. We’d gone shopping before the party, and only then had my boyfriend fully realized what it meant to make crepes to order for 11+ people. So, finally, we'd decided to serve slices of lots of different kinds of frozen pizza, and that went over rather well; soon, not one slice remained.

This year, Halloween falls on a Sunday. The day after is All Saints Day, a national holiday, which means a three-day weekend. And so, most of our friends are going out of town, and Halloween will be a quieter evening this time around; our only guests will be the couple who helped us carve our first French jack o’lantern last year. I’ve told them to come in costume, but we’ll see. At least I’ve found a way to let the spirit of Halloween come into our apartment every October.

As for my boyfriend, I think he’s been completely converted; just yesterday, he asked me if it was time to put up the cotton spider webs again. This year, though, he’s insisting we cook something for dinner.

jack o lantern lit up

Joyeux Halloween!


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