Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween—or Not

Today is Halloween. You wouldn't know it by looking around Paris, though. This isn't surprising, but a few years ago, things were different.

Some years ago, the president of a French company that specializes in costumes and disguises for special events decided to embark on a personal crusade to promote Halloween in France, for purely commercial reasons. Now, Halloween has never been any kind of special occasion here. The following day—All Saints' Day, November 1—has long had special significance, which amounted mainly to French people visiting their dead relatives at cemeteries on that day. Unfortunately (in the eyes of some), visiting graves isn't very lucrative, whereas Halloween, with its long commercial tradition in the United States, seemed much more promising.

So this CEO pushed and pushed to make Halloween into a Major Event, and for a time he succeeded. Things snowballed and for a period of two years or so, Halloween became popular with certain segments of society, especially children, who enjoyed the idea of dressing up in costumes and receiving free candy. At the peak of Halloween's popularity, many stores decorated for the occasion and sold costumes, make-up, and other paraphernalia specific to Halloween (including many costumes and masks produced by this particular French company).

At one point, a store near me that sold things like bathroom towels and bedsheets converted into a Halloween store each year, and the owner said that she made more money in the month preceding Halloween than during the rest of the year put together.

However, a few years ago, this CEO died, and with him died all the intense efforts at promoting Halloween. Very rapidly, the cultural inertia of French society took over and restored the status quo. Today, there's hardly any sign of Halloween any more, although some children and their families still enjoy the dressing-up and trick-or-treat parts. The big department stores, which had embraced Halloween very briefly, were the first to give it up, followed by smaller stores, bars, etc. Even Disneyland has greatly dialed down its observance of this commercial holiday. Everyone just shifts directly to Christmas now, just as in the past.

I recall being somewhat surprised during the peak of the craze to see children walking from store to store on the Champs-Élysées demanding candy from store owners. I don't recall ever seeing that in the United States; looks like something got lost in translation.

Anyway, I don't see any sign of Halloween this year. I never dressed up or anything, anyway, so it's not a big deal, although it was something interesting to break things up in October for a while.

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