Some of the earliest Halloween traditions started in Europe, yet the festival was seen as primarily an American holiday with little or no fanfare with the French. Most French people have ignored the festival in the past, and many still do. But there are signs of the start of a Halloween tradition, particularly as children love dressing up.
Halloween, All Saints and All Souls
Halloween was originally All Hallows Eve, part of a 3-day honouring of the dead which included saints (hallows), martyrs and relatives.
The night was a time to challenge the power of death with humour and ridicule which have become the nonsensical traditions of Halloween today. In some countries, it was forbidden to eat meat, hence the appearance of potato pancakes, apples and soul cakes.
While Halloween falls on October 31st throughout the world, the French are more concerned with Toussaint, a corruption of Tous les Saints, or All the Saints, which takes place on November 1st. On this day, you'll come across families going to the cemetery together to light candles in little lanterns and put flowers on the graves of their relatives; some churches also hold special services.
November 2nd is All Souls Day, the third day of honouring the dead though it has no particular traditions attached today.
Remember that November 1st is a public holiday in France and many French families use it to take a whole week off, so the roads are busier than usual during that week and on November 1st itself, a public holiday, some attractions will be shut.
So what can you expect of Halloween in France?
Now, chocolatiers prepare particular creations for the event; walk past their windows for imaginative displays of broomsticks, witches, wizards and marzipan pumpkins. Children dress up, although you don't see nearly the vast diversity of costumes there that you see in America (ghosts and vampires are quite common).
Teens swarm into McDonald's, apparently the mecca of all things Halloween (i.e. American). If you plan to visit, your best bets for finding Halloween events are visits to big cities like Paris and Nice.
Check out these bewitching ideas
There are annual Witch Festivals (Fête des Sorcières) throughout France. Try the small town of Chalindrey, in the Aisne in Hauts de France region. where the Fort of Cognelot was used for a series of witch hunts in the 16th century, giving it the name of Devil’s Point. Today the celebrations begin with a dance that continues to dawn. The town celebrates with spooky movies being shown, exhibitions and stalls in the streets as well as face painting and lots of food.
Chalindrey is just south of the fortified walled city of Langres in Haute-Marne, Champagne.
Disneyland Paris puts on a major Halloween party, with Main Street USA turning into Spooky Street. It may be expensive, but it’s fun and the nearest you will get to an American celebration in France.
Limoges has celebrated Halloween for the last 20 years with a special parade on October 31. The parade has everything you could want: ghosts, devils and goblins all carrying carved pumpkins. Many of the local restaurants and bars enter into the spirit of the festival with waiters dressed up and there are street shows and parties, attracting from 30,000 to 50,000 visitors.
Limoges is the capital of Haute-Vienne, Limousin.
Other spooky possibilities
You'll have to think outside the box in France for some ghostly ideas.
- Try places like the great abbeys of France with their grand tombs and effigies. There are plenty to visit; check out the list here.
- The ruined abbey church of Jumièges in north France is just the place for a Halloween visit. Walk around the buildings with just the crows for company. And it’s open all year round.
- Or climb the steep hill up to the glorious abbey of Vézelay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a wet October day, all you will hear is the sound of your feet rustling in the fallen leaves. It’s one of the great sites on the pilgrimage route from north Europe to St James of Compostela in Spain.
- Walk through the Chateau of Blois in the Loire Valley; it was the place for the grisly murder of the infamous Duc de Guise.
This article has been edited by Mary Anne Evans