Halloween as a festival in France is still a relatively low-key affair without the razzamatazz of the American Halloween. It didn’t really get started until the 1990s. But Halloween is growing in France as children get the message, love dressing up and carving pumpkins.

And this year, the fierce dragon of Calais will be roaming the streets of the port town, striking terror…or glee…into the hearts of all. For more details, see below.

Adult and children dressed up for Halloween in Limoges
Halloween in Limoges

The Origins of Halloween

It all began with the Celtic festival of Samhain and was associated with the natural cycle of the seasons. Celebrated by the Celtic tribes in Ireland, the UK and north France on November 1st, it marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of winter, associated with darkness and death. The belief was that on the night before the New Year (November 1), the worlds of the living and the dead mingled. On October 31st, All Hallows Eve (which became Halloween), the Celts celebrated the ghosts of the dead returning to earth.

During his time as Pope, Gregory III (731-741), dedicated an oratory in the original St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in honor of all the saints on November 1st. It’s taken as the original recognition of All Saints Day.  

So Halloween became part of the 3-day festival honoring the dead. Halloween was a time of challenging the power of death with humor and ridicule. What started as a powerful desire to banish the dark times turned into the seemingly nonsensical traditions of Halloween today. Dressing up, lighting candles and playing tricks originally had a serious purpose. In some countries, it was forbidden to eat meat, hence the appearance of potato pancakes, apples and soul cakes.

French Halloween Holiday

For the French, October 31st (a Saturday in 2020) is not important. The French celebrate ‘Toussaint’, a corruption of Tous les Saints, or All the Saints on November. It’s an official holiday; public attractions are closed and the French roads get busy with holiday traffic.

Emile Friant's La Toussaint, 1888 showing widows in black withchildren walking on snowy road with cemetery in background, carrying flowers with beggar to left
Emile Friant’s La Toussaint, 1888

There’s always been a tradition in France, as in many European countries, of going to the cemetery to light candles in little lanterns and put flowers, usually chrysanthemums, on relatives’ graves. Some churches hold special services.

Black and white photo looking down a road with snowy fields
Tractor in the snowy Auvergne Public domain CC-BY-SA-2.0

In my remote village in the Auvergne, many of the French with maisons secondaires come back for a week. For some it’s the time to turn off the water and electricity and shut the house for winter before the cold weather comes, the snow begins to fall and the roads impassable.

November 2nd is All Souls Day, the third day of honouring the dead though it has no particular traditions attached to it today.

Black and white photo of All Souls Day 1917 in Pas de Calais with New Zealand soldiers gathered around a grave and a priest outside a church
All Souls Day 1917 in Pas de Calais

All Souls was honored more in the past, hence the funeral burial service to commemorate the New Zealand fallen on November 2nd. The photograph was taken in the churchyard at St Marin’s, Selles, Pas de Calais.

So what can you expect at Halloween in France?

Chocolatiers prepare particular creations for the event. 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).

Where to celebrate Halloween in France

In Paris

Halloween at Disneyland Paris showing witch dressed in black with arms outstretched as if flying atinst chaotic background of branches
Halloween at Disneyland Paris © Disney

Disneyland Paris has a Halloween celebration for visitors. It’s expensive, but it’s the nearest you’ll get to an American celebration in France. This year’s Festival theme is “A Tentacular Mist of Mischief.” You can meet and greet the wicked Disney villains. Watch Mickey’s tricks on a fabulous new float in the Halloween Cavalcade and look at the other ‘marvellously mischievous’ Disney villains  parading along Main Street in their special holiday costumes. Or get thoroughly spooked at the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
Find out more from the Disney Paris website.

Other Cities Celebrate Halloween in France

The Dragon roams the streets of Calais

During recent undersea works carried out to extend the port of Calais, workers have broken open the sacred stone that locks the gateway of
the north and protects the surface of the earth from the denizens of the
subterranean worlds. A fantastical creature has managed to cross the
threshold and enter our world. The footprints found in the sand are
those of a gigantic dragon. Freed from the subterranean worlds, the
Dragon of Calais is heading for the city.

Calais mechanical dragon is huge with people riding on its back
The Calais Dragon

So runs the program of the events taking place between November 1 and 3rd. The Dragon awakes and makes for the city which is defended by the townspeople. There will be all sorts of theatrical events throughout the city as the story unfolds. It sounds fabulous.

Here’s the official program.

Witch Festivals

People walking away down a passageway with brick walls to left on way to tunnel at the Witches Festival at Chalindrey
Witches Festival at Chalindrey

Annual Witch Festivals (Fête des Sorcières) exist in some parts of France. Try Chalindrey, a city south of Langres in the Marne, Champagne. Their festival commemorates the witch hunts of the 16th century which were organised from the Fort of Cognelot. It was called Devil’s Point.

Today’s festival has a holiday market, a tunnel of horror, entertainment and a parade to crown Miss Witch.
Check out what’s happening in Chalindrey.

Tourist train in Limoges dressed up in Halloween colours with people and children looking on
Spooky train in Limoges © Limoges Tourisme

Limoges in Haute-Vienne has celebrated Halloween for the last 20 years with a special parade and events on October 31. The parade has everything you could want: ghosts, devils and goblins all carrying carved pumpkins. For a few days around the date, 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. The Little Tourist Train gets dressed up and even the Aquarium gets in on the act.

DIY Halloween in France

It’s the time to walk through the past. Think of places like the great abbeys of France with their grand tombs and effigies.

The ruined abbey church of Jumièges 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.

Dance of death detail in La Chaise-Dieu church showing medieval painting against ochre background of skeletons and ordinary people dancing
Dance of Death in La Chaise-Dieu © Jean-Pol Grandmont/Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 3.0

Or explore La Chaise-Dieu and its glorious abbey church. Walk around the choir and look at the Dance of Death (danse macabre), painted on panels and reminding us all of what awaits us. It’s in the Auvergne near Le Puy-en-Velay.

Interior of Vézelay basilica with light shining onto carved stone faces on the capitols
Vézelay Basilica Interior © Tourist Office Vézelay

Or climb the steep hill up to the glorious abbey of Vézelay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Burgundy. 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.

And if you’re lucky enough to be in France for Halloween

Events in France in October

Events in France in November

All French public holidays