Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween, or the Eve of the Toussaint

Soon it will be Halloween. I have memories of being a child in NY, dressing up as a princess, or a can of TAB, not to mention a clown or a ghost. A large shopping bag in hand I scoured the neighborhood. My mother would confiscate most all my stash of candy, and certainly anything that wasn't wrapped -- all those worries of razor blades in the apples, or poisoned caramels, or whatever. I'd have my UNICEF box in hand, and Trick or Treat from home to home with my clutch of friends. Losing the candy wasn't that big a deal. It was the evening outing that was the most memorable and important part of the day.

Having children in France, as they came of a certain age, I attempted to Trick or Treat with them. After all, the local stores (this is seven years' ago) were selling Woolworth style plastic pumpkin containers for candy, witches' hats, ghost costumes, and fake blood and vampire teeth galore. The French commercial industry grasped at another opportunity to sell cheap China-made stuff at a time when normally, only the flower industry earns anything.

You see, the French do celebrate le Toussaint, or All-Saints' Day. It is a family day to gather, visit the graves of your ancestors, clean the grave stones, and put fresh flowers there. It is a chance to share family memories with the children, and to think of your long-gone loved ones.

And so there was an attempt to bring Halloween to France. This was most often greeted by harumphing folk sensing yet a further invasion of American culture. Now our English and Scottish friends also celebrate Halloween, and do so more in the style that the French attempted to borrow it -- all scary costumes of ghouls and vampires and witches, nothing fantastic like what you might see in Georgetown this October 31st. But of course, if someone is going to get the bad rap, it is the Americans.

Valiantly, I attempted to communicate the origins of this night of festivities. That in reality it is an ancient Celtic festival, closely linked to All Saints' Day (remember, All Hallow's Eve?) and as Arles is in fact identified with its Celtic history (Arlate is the Celtic name for city in the marshes), how appropriate that we celebrate this aspect of this ancient rite. I simply got blank stares.

Nonetheless, twice, I went out with my boys and a couple of their friends, costumes donned, and bags at the ready, and we Trick or Treated (Bonbons ou Betises is the closest I can come to this in French). At some doors, we were greeted graciously. The inhabitant smiled, rather amused, and found a little something for us. At others, old women looked fearfully through a curtain and shooed us away, and than at others, they looked at us rather quizzically and found a cookie or an apple or some such to toss into our bag. They tried, as did we, but truly, it just didn't catch on.

And so, years later, Halloween is a bit of a joke here. The occasional night club will have a theme party, and if you really must purchase paraphernalia in orange and black, one shop in town just might have some.

And for dress-up and costumes? Well the French celebrate Carnival before Lent, and there, costumes are encouraged, silly games and more. With that, who needs Halloween?

In fact, I've been berated as to the scary and negative nature of this holiday. In Alsace and areas north, they celebrate the St. Martin, by walking into the woods at night with lanterns in hand, bringing warmth and light to Nature as she signals her time of sleep and hibernation. A very different way to greet the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.

I'm trying to adapt, and have been trying for years now. But old habits persist.

Here is my Scottish friend's Pumpkin soup made from the scoopings of her kids' Jack-o-Lanterns. At least in her house, Halloween still has some meaning:

Pumpkin soup:

One chopped onion – butter and olive oil (flavor)
Pepper, salt and garlic
Optional: smoked bacon

Cook till browned, add three cups of pumpkin scoopings (what you’ve scooped out when you make your Jack-o-Lantern), a chopped apple and sweat.

Add 2 cups of chicken stock, one bottle of dry cider (bubbly), and grate a good nob of fresh ginger root.

Cook till tender, then blend with an immersion blender.

Happy children eat the soup of their labor.

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