Ghosts’n’Goblins: The Origins of Halloween

Posted on 31. Oct, 2014 by in History

Image by Pedro Ferreira on Flickr

Image by Pedro Ferreira on Flickr

Today, children all over the United States will be donning their déguisements (costumes) and at crépuscule (dusk) will be headed out the door to make the rounds of their neighborhood to celebrate Halloween.

Mais d’où vient cette tradition (But where does this tradition come from)? What exactly is Halloween? And does France even celebrate it?

Halloween, also called Hallows’ Eve, has roots in l’histoire ancienne (ancient history). It can trace its lineage back to the Celtic calendar festival of Samhain (literally “end of summer” in Celtic) in Ireland and Britain. November 1 was set apart as the day to commemorate la fin de l’été (the end of summer) and to celebrate les morts (the dead). The emphasis on the supernatural during Samhain gave the festival an aura of peur (fear) during which people made sacrifices to the Celtic gods who played tricks on them. Fires were lit to ward off spirits and disguises were often worn pour se cacher des fantômes (to hide from ghosts).

The Roman festivals of Feralia merged with the rituals of Samhain when the Romans conquered the Celts in the 1st century A.D., thus adding to the mystique and folklore of Halloween.

Six hundred years later, La Toussaint (literally “All Saints’” Day) was promulgated by Pope Boniface IV and was to be celebrated on May 13. Families would gather to pay respects to loved ones they had lost and to honor the saints. Durant le Moyen-Âge (During the Middle Ages) the Catholic Church was the most powerful institution and in the 8th century, Pope Gregory III changed the date of La Toussaint to November 1, possibly to overshadow the pagan holidays. October 31st of every year became a “hallowed evening” and thus the term “Halloween” came into being. Today, November 1st continues to remain un jour férié (public holiday) in France where schools, restaurants, post offices, banks and other businesses are all closed. A similar tradition to La Toussaint takes place au Mexique (in Mexico) between October 31st and November 2nd called Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) when those belonging to the Catholic faith visit les tombeaux (the graves) of their relatives to pay their respects.

Britain and Ireland continued celebrating Halloween as a secular holiday beyond the Middle Ages. British and Irish immigrants brought Halloween to the United States beginning in the mid-19th century and since then Halloween, much like Noël et Pâques (Christmas and Easter), has slowly morphed into a commercial “holiday” filled with costumes, trick-or-treating and copious amounts of bonbons (candy).

In France, Halloween has garnered little attention and is mostly a pretext for people to dress up and attend costume parties. Absent are the typical American costumes (superheroes) in favor of more macabre disguises (ghosts, zombies, etc.) typically associated with Halloween. Halloween remains an obscure holiday in France but you might find Jack-o’-lanterns and other decorations behind the windows of businesses and homes.

Will Halloween ever become a popular tradition in France? It is doubtful. But the next time someone asks you about Halloween, you can impress them with your knowledge of its origins. If anything, it makes for good conversation.

Happy Halloween!

A Meal for All Seasons: La Soupe à l’Oignon (Onion Soup)

Posted on 29. Oct, 2014 by in Cooking, History

Image by Sea-Turtle on Flickr

Image by Sea-Turtle on Flickr

Bienvenue mes amis! (Welcome my friends!) Aujourd’hui nous allons apprendre à préparer un plat bien Français: la soupe à l’oignon (Today we will be learning how to prepare a typical French dish: onion soup).

Tradition has dictated that French onion soup be served avec du fromage râpé (with grated cheese) and croutons. Although onion soups date back du temps des Romains (to Roman times), the French take on onion soup dates back to le 18ème siècle (the 18th century). The soup is made from bouillon de bœuf (beef broth) to which you add des oignons caramélisés (caramelized onions) and du Gruyère râpé (grated Gruyère) topped with une tranche de pain grillé (a slice of toasted bread) called a “crouton.”

There are a number of variations of French onion soup but the core elements remain the same: broth, cheese and bread. Below is a simple and quick recette (recipe) that will introduce you to this typical French dish. Although it lacks meat, this soup is still hearty and is often served as an entrée (appetizer) before le plat principal (the main dish).


2 ½ large yellow onions cut into thin slices

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

2 Tbsp. flour

¼ tsp. sugar

3 ½ cups of beef broth

½ cup of grated Gruyère (can be substituted for another kind of Swiss cheese if Gruyère is difficult to find)

¼ cup of sherry, brandy, vermouth or white wine

Toasted French bread cut into slices


Heat oil in pan over medium heat. Add onions, reduce heat and let cook for 15 minutes. Remove cover. Increase heat to medium, add sugar and let cook until onions are caramelized. Add flour and stir for one minute. Add broth and spirit/wine and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Top with bread and Gruyère.

Dégustez en famille ou avec des amis! Vive la cuisine Française et bon appétit! (Enjoy with family or friends! Long live French cuisine and enjoy your meal!)

Parlez-vous Français?: A Study of French Expressions (Part 6)

Posted on 27. Oct, 2014 by in Grammar, Vocabulary

Photo by Tim Morgan on Flickr

Photo by Tim Morgan on Flickr

Have you had a chance to apply some of the French idioms we saw in previous posts? In parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 we covered a variety of expressions, many of which can be used in everyday language in one way or another. It may take a little time to become familiar with them, but you’re bound to find a few that stick out and that you might want to insert into your conversations with other French speakers.

If you haven’t found any aphorisms in the previous posts that appeal to you or that you deem useful, here are a few may that may suit your fancy.

**Phrase in parentheses is the literal translation, or as close to it as possible.**

La roue tourne (The wheel turns) – Things change/evolve.

Rouler sur l’or (Rolling on the gold) – To be very wealthy (similar to the expression “Rolling in the dough”).

Il y a anguille sous roche (There is eel under rock) – Something is hidden/Not everything is clear.

Mettre de l’eau dans son vin (Putting water in one’s wine) – Not exaggerating one’s ambitions.

Fort comme un Turc (Strong like a Turk) – Very physically strong or robust.

Manger avec les chevaux de bois (Eating with the wooden horses) – Having nothing to eat/Fasting.

C’est le bouquet! (It’s the bouquet!) – As if things couldn’t get any worse!

Rôtir le balai (Roasting the broom) – Living a life of debauchery.

Un pétard mouillé (A wet firecracker) – An important bit of information that turns out to be false.

Un chien regarde bien un évêque (A dog looks well at a bishop) – A person of high stature should not be offended by the looks of those of lower stature.

Avoir un poil dans la main (Having a hair in the hand) – Being very lazy.

Se noyer dans un verre d’eau (Drowning in a glass of water) – Being incapable of dealing with change.

N’y voir que du bleu (Only seeing blue) – Not being able to see or understand anything.

Avoir bon pied bon œil (Having good foot good eye) – Being healthy/vigorous.

La fleur au fusil (The flower on the rifle) – Doing something with enthusiasm, joy and/or courage.