There is Halloween in Paris
Owing to American influence, there are shops with costumes and decorations. In our neighborhood, we haven’t seen kids go door-to-door soliciting candy, though I buy some every year hoping that they’ll catch on. Spooky Halloween decorations cover the common areas of our apartment building. On the streets, they are already installing Christmas decorations, so you know what is important to the merchants. Still, there is a place in Paris this year for those who dress up in scary costumes and put fierce-looking carved pumpkins on their steps to ward off the evil spirits.
This year we have terrorists
On October 17th near Paris, a terrorist attacked and beheaded a school teacher who taught a lesson on free speech. His lesson featured controversial elements of articles from the radical Paris periodical Charlie Hebdo, where terrorists had murdered much of the staff in 2015. According to accounts, the teacher had endeavored to present the material in a culturally acceptable way. His efforts were misrepresented on social media as callous disregard for Islamic teachings. An assassin read about it and traveled 80km to kill him and cut off his head.
Then, on October 29th in Nice, a Tunisian who had only arrived in France last month, killed three people in a church, nearly severing the head of one woman. A knife attack last month outside the former office of Charlie Hebdo injured two. Since 1970 there have been nearly 3000 terrorist incidents in France.
Recognition for victims
The French government has tried to create a form of recognition for the victims. They give a National Medal of Recognition for those killed, wounded, or held captive. American artist Jeff Coons Bouquet of Tulips honors the victims of the Bataclan Theatre terrorist attack, where hundreds were killed in 2015. It resembles the hand of the Statue of Liberty, only holding a bouquet of tulips (all in Coons’s balloon-like style). We associate tulips of all colors with grace, symbolizing how easily the deceased walked the earth during their time. For me, these attempts do little to address the profound sadness and loss suffered by innocent victims. The anonymous British street artist Banksy created a mural on a door at the Bataclan, a madonna-like figure. Art thieves stole it in 2019. Investigators found it again in Italy last June. I don’t think it has yet been returned.
The French have pushed back
French President Macron has gone beyond his predecessors not only to denounce the terrorist acts, but also to strengthen French secularism, which advocates that everyone is first and foremost French and supports French ideals. The President has also attacked Islamist separatism, the organization of separate religious-based laws and customs within certain communities in France. The leaders of Turkey and certain countries in Africa with predominantly Muslim populations now denounce Macron for his actions.
These suicidal attacks on innocent people supposedly confer great honor on the attacker and inspire fear in the local population. In my view, the attacker is just one of the victims. Those who inspire the attacker still live. Ironic isn’t it? Even so, these attacks are highly effective with our modern day secular thinking, where we try to censor online media posts, lock down our countries to try to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and organize community events so that children can safely trick or treat. Making everything safe consumes us, even though it doesn’t really make things safer.
Still we have a certain fascination with terror, as if it should exist only to entertain us. For example, the 11 movies of the Halloween series have, over 40 years, produced a significant body of work reveling in murder and terror.
A history of Halloween
In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celts celebrated a new years festival, Samhain, held on November 1. Legend has it that during the festival, the world of the gods became visible to humankind. The gods played many tricks on their mortal worshippers. People thought only of danger, fear, and supernatural episodes.
According to legend, during the Samhain festival, the souls of those who had died return to visit their homes. Those who died during the year journey to the otherworld. People set bonfires on hilltops for relighting their hearth fires for the winter and to frighten away evil spirits. Sometimes they wore masks and other disguises so that the ghosts would not recognize them. It was in those ways that beings such as witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons came to be associated with the day. The Romans came and conquered. They added their own celebrations for the passing of the dead and celebrating the goddess of the harvest.
By about 700AD, the Roman empire had collapsed, but Christianity had spread to the British Isles. Pope Boniface established All Saints Day. By the end of the middle ages these various traditions had merged. Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, occurs October 31, followed by All Saints Day on November 1st. After the Reformation, Halloween became a non-religious holiday for Protestants. It came to the United States essentially in its present-day form.
A statue for the victims
In the Jardin de l’Intendant at Hôtel des Invalides is a small, but terrifying statue of a woman. It’s actually a fountain, though the water is usually shut off. It’s well off the street and not marked on either Apple or Google maps. I don’t think tourists know this site. I noticed it from perhaps 50 yards away while walking by. The feminine shape standing alone in the trees is very attractive. Imagine the horror when you realize she is holding her head in her hands. She was dedicated in 1998 to the victims of terrorism following a grisly period of Metro bombings in Paris. To me she represents the true image of the victims of terrorism, a beautiful, shocking, profoundly sad figure.
So it’s Halloween here in Paris. Covid-19 has us locked down. There are terrorists among us. We put out our pumpkins to ward off the evil spirits, knowing that we really don’t have control, but determined to make the best of things anyway.
People remember Franklin Roosevelt for his empty quote, “All we have to fear is fear itself.” Still, if you take that in the context of his first inaugural address, it reads, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It’s a fitting quote for our times.