Let’s start with a bit of history. Halloween, a contraction of Hallows Eve or Hallows’ Evening, is Celtic in origin. Most historians believe that Halloween traditions stem from the ancient Celtic harvest festival of Samhain, which marks the beginning of the “darker” half of the year, as it relates to the seasons.
The celebration of Halloween is believed to have been brought with the mass immigration of Irish after the famine of 1646. Throughout the course of the past 300 years, Halloween has grown substantially and is currently estimated as a 10 billion dollar industry with over 180 million participants (numbers from statista.com). With the majority of Americans unaware of the Celtic origins of Halloween, it’s safe to say that Halloween is not religious, but rather a cultural tradition for adults and children to dress up in costume, go trick-or-treating, carve pumpkins, and watch scary movies.
Halloween was introduced in France during the late 1990s/early 2000s as an American marketing operation. Some say that due to the American marketing presence of huge corporations such as Disney, pumpkins, spiders, and black cats seemingly appeared overnight. Culturally, this attempt to implement a non-French tradition was poorly received by the majority of French people. By 2006, the newspaper Le Parisien wrote an article entitled Halloween est mort (Halloween is dead). Notably, some of the older generations and traditionalists find Halloween disrespectful to the real French holiday of Toussaint (All Saints Day) celebrated on November 1st. However, among younger generations, Halloween is still perceived by some as a fun opportunity to throw parties, dress up, and decorate. For this reason, Halloween is not a simple nor uniform celebration in France. It leaves people conflicted.
La Toussaint has been a Christian tradition since the 5th century. Originally, this holiday was celebrated in the Spring during Easter and Pentecost. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III changed the holiday to a day to honor all saints (both known and unknown) and changed the date from the Spring to November 1st. In France, all French schools have a two-week holiday called La Toussaint starting around October 25th. Although the origin of this holiday is Christian, most French children do not know of the religious ceremonies and traditions, but rather associate La Toussaint with a long school holiday. For those who do celebrate la Toussaint in the religious sense, the tradition is to attend mass and then bring chrysanthemum flowers to the graves of their deceased family members, which represent a happy afterlife. Attending church services, dining together, enjoying the short holiday break with family, and remembering the lost ones is the traditional French way of spending the day of November 1st.
All Saints Day is not a national holiday. For practicing Christians, November 1st is a day to attend mass, remember lost loved ones, and visit cemeteries to clean up grave sites, light candles and leave flowers. All Saints Day is not a national holiday, and as such, work and school are in session.
Do you celebrate either of these two holidays? If you dressed up for Halloween, let us know what your costume was! !
Cultural Programs Manager / Office Manager
Clémence has a Master’s degree in Cultural Projects Management. She worked in Paris for several years for theater companies. She likes discovering new cultures, people and places, which is why she crossed the ocean to start a new experience in Boston. She is glad to be part of the French Library to promote French culture and language. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, hiking, kayaking and all forms of art!