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France goes batty over Halloween

French children try on costumes at a store in Paris. The holiday is becoming popular among French children, who celebrate at Halloween parties, but forgo the tradition of trick-or-treating.  

PARIS (CNN) -- In late October, the streets of Paris grow colder and darkness comes earlier. From high atop gothic cathedrals, gargoyles look down at the living and the dead moving through the medieval lanes of the city of lights, where jack-o-lanterns can be seen glowing amid the flickering street lamps.

Up until the last four years, the spirit of Halloween was largely unknown in France. But Halloween 2000 promises to be a major event as growing numbers of Parisians are adopting the holiday traditions of October 31.

"The American Dream," a bar and restaurant near the Opera Garnier, has been celebrating Halloween since 1982. In the beginning, it had to give its customers leaflets explaining the tradition.

"No one knew what it was," says the manager, Charles Lellouche. "But in the last three or four years, many people of all nationalities have come here to celebrate Halloween."

The spirit is everywhere

This year, The American Dream is not the only place in Paris where a Halloween party is brewing.

One local radio station is promoting an in-line skating event for the holiday. Participants will dress up in costumes, strap on their blades and take to the streets at midnight.

Pastry shops and candy stores are also preparing for the witching hour, decking their windows and counters with cobwebs and ladling their confections with orange and black icing.

Even some newsstands, hair salons and jewelry boutiques are taking on a spooky theme. It seems every kind of business in Paris is trying to capitalize on the success of this new trend.

One telephone card company urges customers to call friends and family to bid them a "Happy Halloween." A travel agency promotes Halloween vacations that appear to have nothing to do with the holiday except that they occur in the last week of October. And a sandwich bread label offers plastic pumpkin prizes to 500 eligible winners.

Just outside Paris, the Gally Farm features a pumpkin patch where people can pick their own. Carving tools and how-to booklets for making jack-o-lanterns are readily available.

The business of Halloween in France is worth about $18 million a year, according to a 1998 estimate.

Window displays are important in Paris and each shop owner takes great pride in decorating, with Halloween becoming a more common theme each October.  

Happy Halloween! Who said it first?

The French prefer mummies, ghosts, goblins and vampires for costumes, foregoing dressing up as American super heroes such as Wonder Woman or Batman.

And even though many French stores and cafes are decorated in typically American-style Halloween fashions, most locals are quick to say that the holiday did not originate in the United States.

Historically, the traditions of Halloween were celebrated by the Celts, the ancient European tribe that settled in Ireland, Great Britain and northern France. These celebrations began the eve of November 1 or All Saint's Day, a night when spirits rose from the dead. The Celts wore masks to scare off the evil spirits and prepared food to lure the good ones.

Centuries later, the Celtic Halloween traditions waned in northern France while celebrations lived on in Ireland and Great Britain. America was introduced to the holiday in the 1840s and has since built on the traditions.

"The origin of Halloween is definitely European," says a customer at the Traffaut gardening store in Paris. "And now is the right time for it to come back to us," he adds, as he buys two flower pots decorated with ghosts, goblins and bright orange pumpkins.

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For the past three years, Traffaut's, located in the Left Bank district, has set aside a large space for selling Halloween decorations and costumes.

"A lot of French people refuse to enjoy Halloween because it comes from the United States," says Fanny Neuville, a sales assistant. "But this belief is not totally true. It's part of this whole anti-American movement we are experiencing in France."

It remains to be seen whether Halloween is merely a fad or a long-term tradition for the French.

"Everyone waits for the night of Halloween to see if it is still going to happen," says Neuville as she sorts through a new shipment of pumpkin-shaped candies.

Culture or business

"Halloween, the Guide of Ideas, Recipes and Disguises" is a handbook of how to celebrate Halloween in France, written by Philippe Cahen.

The French can make Halloween their own with a bit of flair and creativity, says Cahen, whose Paris company, Optos Opus, is dedicated to the creation and marketing of new ideas and products. This year, Cahen challenged 25 artists to come up with works with a Halloween theme. The result is currently on exhibit at the Victor Hugo Clinic near the Arc de Triomphe.

"Every year, I create something new," Cahen says, as he adjusts one of the exhibit's paintings -- a technicolor skeleton surrounded by glowing hearts.

"Halloween is a period of the year when you do things you are not allowed to do at other times of the year. There is nothing like this in the United States. I think American people would be amazed by this. I think they would be shocked," he says, as he surveys works that include a sculpture of a fanged creature wearing striped stockings of different hues on its six pairs of legs.

"You see Halloween can be a business, but it is also culture," Cahen says.


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