There seems to be this idea in the minds of many in the US that the blue print of the whole American life-style and traditions should be copied and paste on to the whole world. “Why not? We like it, they have to as well.”
I am talking about Halloween in that context and the reaction of sympathetic, slightly patronising sadness I get everytime I am asked about it and I say that I have never put on a costume and gone trick-or-treating on October 31st. There is sadness but there is also judgment.
“Awww, I’m so sorry! Poor French kids, I can’t believe they are deprived of so much fun…”
I’m sorry, what?! “Deprived”, you said?
Then they explain that it’s terrible for the kids because Halloween is so much fun for them, they get to dress up, to go and get sweets and it’s so “great” and they are “so excited”. They love it, we love it, everybody loves it so they don’t understand why the whole world still hasn’t joined in the fun! It’s so exciting!
Americans are always very excited about things they do and obviously still under the spell of having been called “the Promise Land” in the 1800s.
I was watching Ellen yesterday and Daniel Radcliffe got exactly the same reaction when he said he had never celebrated Halloween. There is pity and the idea that we all should do it because, even if we don’t care, it’s not about us, it’s about the kids and it’s about fun. “Duncha wanna have fun?”
This ethnocentric attitude would be nice if it were not so demeaning and righteous regarding how different cultures are.
I am French and yes, we don’t celebrate Halloween.
We are not against Halloween as such, except for some old farts who think we should also ban Christmas because “it’s lost its meaning” and call it “Presents day” or worst “Materialismas”. I am not against Halloween, I actually like the tradition behind it, the chasing of the demons before All-Saints day.
In France, it’s coming and going of course because of course there’s a huge marketing push (that’s annoying!). I mean the shops are happy to be selling costumes and sweets, and yes, the appeal for the kids to be monsters and get free sweets is fantastic. However, on the morning of October 31st, I went to the supermarket and it was business as usual. No decoration, no sales on sweets and costume props, no special department dedicated to Halloween. Only a poor employee, they dressed up as a witch, was standing on a corner, bored, handing plastic bag, with a couple of sweets and a ghost drawn on it, to some toddlers with their wary-looking parents.
On the night, no house was decorated, no one came to ring the bell and I can’t remember anyone who knocked at our door for the past 30 years asking for sweets. Halloween doesn’t take off and not because we try to resist it but because it’s just not what we do. Maybe one day it will be, but for now, very little parents take their kids around the streets at night because they know that getting a couple of Werthers Original or Vicky mints will be a night to remember.
I don’t know how we translated “Trick or Treats?” but I do know most of the French kids are not aware that you’re supposed to retaliate if the person doesn’t give you anything. Actually, I can bet most of the kids don’t even know you have to go from door to door to get the sweets. Many parents will buy a pack of sweets for their kids and just give it to them because “the TV said it’s Halloween and it says I have to get sweets, mum!”
But there is no need for pity or emotionally-charged, narrow-minded judgments on how the French treat their kids either.
In France, on December 6th, on St Nicholas’ Day, the official first day of the month of Christmas, kids will get some sweets and chocolate. In my family, we bake gingerbread cake with my mum. I am not taking about the hard, five-spice, teeth-breaking gingerbread used for the house but the Northern German soft, moist, loaf of gingerbread with candies orange peels, strong honey and iced with warm milk and granulated sugar. The loaf of which you cut big slices on which you spread some thick Normand butter and add some more honey.
On January 6th, the English-world gets nothing? Awwww, that’s terrible because in France and other Catholic-tradition countries, we celebrate the three Wise men with the Epihany. We stuff our faces with Galette des Rois, a big cake made up of layers of puff pastry and stuffed with frangipane. And because we love it, we celebrate all week: at school, at work, when the parents, with the grand-parents, with the cousins…Every single person you meet is an excuse to eat that cake warm because inside is a figurine and the one who gets it is the king or the queen for the day. Poor little American children who are so cruelly deprived of a chance to be kings and queens!
On January 1st, we traditionally get “les étrennes”: a gift of money from our parents as a reminder of an old tradition, the gift of money given to orphans by the people at the beginning of each year. American kids get nothing? Aww, that’s terrible! How dare you deprive them from such a generous gesture?
On Mardi Gras, except for some places in the US with a strong French tradition like New Orleans, no one dresses up and celebrates. We do! Fat Tuesday is traditionally to stuff your face with as much fat and sugary food as you can before the Lenten season. You try to make it merge with Shrove Tuesday but it is just not. In France, it’s not a bank holiday but there is always a carnival so even if you’re at school, you dress up, you parade in the street with music, your friends, your family, your teachers, you sing, you shout. Then we all gather in the town square or a park to watch a huge figure of wood or cardboard built, by the kids at school, to be burnt off. Now we also have fireworks. It’s brilliant! Poor American children who are so cruelly deprived of so much fun!
See? It’s easy for me to list all the occasions of celebration in the French culture and highlight the terrible deprivation the Americans are enforcing on their children by not embracing every single one of them.
Every culture has countless traditions and occasions to celebrate and I have no problem with people not knowing about it. I knew very little about how much celebration and bonding were involved during Ramadhan’s nights before teaching kids who were Muslims from South-East Asia. I knew nothing about Eid so I asked them and we compared cultural practices because it’s okay not to know. But passing judgments…really?
Bottom line, there is a difference between not knowing about one’s own traditions and wilfully ignoring them. There is a difference between not knowing about someone’s culture and pitying them for not having the same one as yours then trying force your own traditions in their face in the name of “fun”.
Get your minds out the gutter.