October 31, 1997

Journal: A Treat or U.S. Trick? Whatever, Halloween's Here


PARIS -- In one of the stranger manifestations of globalization, Halloween fever has abruptly gripped the French, sending pumpkin prices soaring and sorely testing the Gallic ability to pronounce "trick or treat."

Every last rampart against things American seems to have fallen as more than 8,000 pumpkins have been spread across the Trocadero esplanade in Paris, stores have filled with ghoulish masks and inflatable pumpkin costumes, at least one champagne has adopted a special pumpkin label, bakeries have begun selling "Halloween cakes", and villages have adopted Halloween festivals.

Just a year ago, Halloween -- pronounced "AH-lo-een" by the French -- was virtually unknown here. The only things selling briskly on the eve of All Saints' Day were the chrysanthemums traditionally taken to cemeteries to be placed on graves.

But the progressive Americanization of French culture, the realization that Halloween is a useful marketing ploy in the hollow period before the Christmas season, and the seeming thirst of an economically stagnant society for a moment of festivity seem to have combined to create a sudden Halloween obsession.

"I must tell you that all this is absolutely bizarre," said Marie-France Gueusquin, an ethnologist at the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions in Paris. "I suddenly started seeing pumpkins everywhere in my local Monoprix supermarket and I had no idea what was going on. This is emphatically not a traditional French festival, and my only explanation is that we have belatedly discovered the power of marketing."

Certainly, the national telephone company, France Telecom, which sold shares to the public this month for the first time, has decided the pumpkin plays well with the French. Its mobile telephone, the Ola, is being advertised with orange billboards announcing the pleasures of "Olaween." The five truckloads of pumpkins now at Trocadero were placed there by the company to back this campaign.

"Halloween is in the air," said Frederic Queret, a spokesman for France Telecom. "It's festive, convivial, and it's a great way to sell a product. Commercially, this period is usually very calm, and Halloween fills the gap before Christmas."

As the fever has risen, pumpkin prices surged 12.5 percent this week, to reach 2.50 francs a kilo (about 25 cents a pound) at the Paris wholesale market at Rungis. Most flower stores in Paris now have pumpkins on display, and Hallmark has started to sell Halloween cards in France for the first time.

"It was weird," said Anne-Marie Carluis, a spokesman for Hallmark in France. "We suddenly began to get requests from stores for these cards. We've shipped thousands. A new festival has been born in France."

So, has some hobgoblin or fairy slipped into France and spirited away the country's traditional resistance to cultural invasion by the "Anglo-Saxons," leaving it strangely vulnerable to every last excess of "le marketing" in its most aggressive American form?

Not quite. French newspapers have pointedly noted that the origins of Halloween, or All Hallows' Eve, are European rather than American. It was in ancient Britain and Ireland that a pagan festival was observed on Oct. 31, the eve of the New Year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times, and the souls of the dead were said to revisit their homes.

These pagan practices influenced the Christian festival of All Hallows' Eve, and Halloween became associated with pranks, demons, and the supernatural. But it was of course in the United States -- where immigrants, particularly the Irish, introduced the customs -- that Halloween flourished. The pumpkin was introduced as a symbol, and the festival was firmly linked to children through trick-or-treating.

"Before it became American, this was a European festival, so I don't see why we should not celebrate it in France," Claude Thieulin said as he gazed at a selection of Halloween offerings -- trick-or-treat balloons, jelly beans, masks, and inflatable pumpkins -- at the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. "It's an extra excuse to have some fun, and, believe me, we need that."

Some villages holding Halloween festivals, like Muy in southern France, have also contended that Halloween and its accompanying pumpkins are not particularly American in that the pumpkin (la citrouille), which is also grown here, has long played an important part in the local cuisine.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that French Halloween is merely another sign of the growing power of American culture in France, where fast-food restaurants, American movies, reversed baseball caps, and American basketball stars play an ever larger part in national life. Attempts to defend French language and culture have proved increasingly vulnerable to this onslaught.

"For us, Halloween is a real discovery, a wonderful marketing exploit," said Laurence Tankere, a spokeswoman for Galeries Lafayette. "I think it is so successful because people are longing for an excuse to have a good time. It is interesting that we have sold as many articles for adults as for children." She said that the Paris store's sales of Halloween merchandise was worth about $2,000 a day.

Anna Ocampo, 13, and Pauline Coyac, 14, were shopping for Halloween goods on Thursday at Galeries Lafayette. They discovered Halloween for the first time this year, and have already adorned their homes with pumpkins and masks.

"It's a festival of the dead, I think," Anna said, "but it's a lot of fun."

Asked if they knew about trick-or-treating, they looked blank. "Treek au treeting?" Pauline said.

But Tankere, the spokeswoman, was already familiar with this American refinement of Halloween. "I am sure it will come to France," she said. "It is like door-to-door selling, I think, and it's wonderful!"

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