When I was a small child growing up in rural France, nobody we knew had heard of Halloween. Much as many families worldwide have ceremonies, like watching Neighbours or taking ayahuasca, All Hallows’ Eve was our private, sacred American family secret. At dusk, we’d light candles and get dressed up, i.e. throw together something outrageous involving some rags, a couple of belts, some vegetables and some stolen lipstick and, well, sit around BEING AWESOME. Feeling Halloweeny. (And spelling it the goddamn American way.) I can’t say I’ve quite outgrown it, even though Halloween these days is more likely than not to involve flaming shots of dubious liquid and making out with some pupil-dilated individual covered in (hopefully fake) blood.
But back to my story. This innocent era came to an end circa 1996 when France discovered Halloween. That’s right, discovered it. And immediately went on to claim they’d invented it. ‘allouin became an old Celtic holiday. Samhain was definitely totally, totally French. (Don’t bother questioning it. Pick your battles. Say, Arthurian legends.)
Anyway, so Halloween was French now. And, sacrebleu, the French were going to do it right. (Disclaimer: nobody says sacrebleu. Ever.) To be honest, you can kind of understand them. Up until then, the most exciting thing you could do ‘round that time of year was pop round to the tombs of your ancestors for a bit and water the fake flowers. A celebration of prank-pulling, sheet-wearing and E-numbers was a vast improvement. Suddenly, our childhood’s training came into its own. Overnight, my sister and I were crowned Halloween Queens, mostly because we seemed to be able to pronounce it. The hideous polyester vampire shirt with the GIANT plastic gold cross was cool. (In the latter days of our reign, the costume choices available to my sister and me expanded to include the cheesiest spandex, sequin and plastic things my grandmother could possibly find and ship to us, poor deprived children living in what she must’ve assumed from my parents’ dispatches on the subject was pretty much a Third World country.) For the first time since our friends discovered we didn’t really know about Claude François or ‘les Worlds Apart,’ we were ahead of the trend! We had fake blood! We had fake cobwebs! (OK, that’s a lie, my parents drew the line at paying to put fake cobwebs in a house as full of actual cobwebs as our own.) We had plastic witch fingers which made your fingers smell horrible for days! We made pumpkin soup! (According to a bemused neighbour, French people don’t really eat pumpkin; it reminds them of the war.) I think one year we even had American Halloween candy – cue my parents despairingly trying to explain to us why candy corn was a thing, in one of those dreadful moments when they realised they had raised Foreign Children. We set up a giant zinc tub from the garden in the middle of our kitchen and organised apple-bobbing! (There’s just nothing like mashing your face into the side of a cold metal tub in the pursuit of healthy snacks, is there.) That was the best time. Our five friends loved it. (It was a small village. Shut up.)
But our reign ended rather swiftly the next autumn when the socialist government* had us decapitated** (*school)(**sent out a note). ‘Le trick or treat,’ it announced with little American-import spider Clip-Arts, would be organised by the school. It would, of course, be well-supervised. By every single teacher of the school. And of course, for safety’s sake, the children would proceed en masse.
‘Pas de tricks!’ the whichever teacher wrote the note jested, probably after looking up ‘tricks’ on whatever people used before Google.
My parents were outraged. What kind of barbaric country was this? What would they do with all the sporks, eggs and toilet paper they had laid in? (Joke. I have never sporked anybody’s pelouse.)
And then the reality of what was implied by ‘en masse’ sank in.
That is how we ended up with an army of close to eighty sugar-high little French kids between the ages of 3 and 10 swarming in a fairly orderly fashion through the streets of downtown Faulbach (population: 200). To these people, the rules of trick-or-treating were clear. No time to chat or have costumes cooed over or guessed at. To be honest, most of them were wearing Scream masks anyway. No, this was to be a cold, semi-military operation.
The chant we had decided on was the francophone ‘un bonbon ou un sort!’ – ‘a piece of candy or a spell!’ which has got to be pretty much the world’s most awkward English-to-French translation since ‘Jaws’ became ‘The Teeth of the Sea’, and was also, incidentally, a gross misrepresentation of our aims. We basically raided and pillaged the entire village of Faulbach. The parents and teachers fronted this army, and politely requested that every household hand over every sweet in their possession, like some sort of hideous reverse Jamie-Olivering, whilst children squabbled and howled in the background. Mothers poured two or three entire bags of sweets into our vast wicker baskets and binbags. Grannies scuttled back into the kitchen and tipped in whole bowls of oranges. Mechanics shrugged and gave us their family’s entire stash of chocolate. Some tipsy dude gave us a bunch of aperitif biscuits. Many kept their doors shut, presumably shivering in their basements, clutching their last cans of cassoulet. It was carnage.
This socialist-junta-style Halloween did not end there. The parents lugged our haul (I’m 95% sure we had a wheelbarrow) back to the head of the PTA’s house, where they carefully distributed it equally between every single one of the children. Even the slackers. Even the ones whose costumes were just a big coat. Even the ones who had just bought their masks from Carrefour. Everybody got their allocated twelve toffees and seven hundred gummy bears and two mini pizzas, or whatever. It was completely bizarre and kind of awesome.
There is a moral in this for all of us: the French also invented pumpkin soup.
Ed. Spoke to my Dad on the phone shortly after Halloween this year (2013) – there is indeed a wheelbarrow, and they still use it.