PARIS, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- When an odd new craze for Halloween roared into France just a few years ago, few were as unhappy about the latest American import as the country's Christian leaders.
As patisseries packed their windows with pumpkins and witches, and French revelers hit darkened streets in demons' masks, Protestant and Catholic clergy posted church flyers bemoaning the loss of spiritual values and the crass commercialism of the Oct. 31 holiday.
"How long can this marketing operation called Halloween continue to distort our sense of life and death?" the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference asked in its October 2000 bulletin.
Today, the Halloween "operation" shows no signs of fading. So the Catholic Church in Paris is striking back Thursday night with a softer -- and more pragmatic -- campaign. Dubbed "Holy Wins," the Oct. 31 celebration features an evening of Christian rock and reggae music at the famous Saint-Sulpice church, on the Left Bank of Paris.
The Holy Wins slogan is not subtle -- nor is its logo: A pumpkin barred by a cross.
"I'm not annoyed by Halloween," said Father Benoist de Sinety, head of youth programs for the diocese of Paris, which is hosting the Christian event. "I understand a bit about American culture and traditional holidays. But we're always looking at the best way to bring the message of the Gospel to Christians."
The message at hand -- accented by 150,000 free copies of a Catholic newspaper distributed across Paris Thursday -- is not about Halloween, but about All Saints' Day, Nov. 1. The traditional European holiday, to remember dead loved ones, is among the rare occasions when French Catholics fill the pews of their local churches.
"This is a time when everyone thinks about death, grieving and the purpose of life," de Sinety said. "So let's seize the occasion to make a more dynamic announcement about Christian hopes."
The "Holy Wins" campaign hopes to draw several thousand youth to the evening concert, and many more to All Saints services the following morning. The Christian music groups -- with provocative names like Charisma and Glorious -- are offering their talents free of charge.
"Halloween isn't a holiday that we like," Emmanuel Baudouin, a member of the reggae group Spear Hit, told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper. "It's commercial, and it represents something that is not pretty, in a morbid atmosphere."
French clergy have fought the Halloween battle before, of course. The festival's origins stretch back to pre-Christian times, when Celts in France and Britain observed the edge-of-winter festival of Samhain.
Only in the ninth century did Pope Boniface IV create All Saint's Day, in an effort to eradicate the pagan celebrations for good. He gambled well -- for the short term.
But the church's newest crusade against hedonism appears to be having limited effect. Almost a third of all French now observe Halloween, according to a survey published in Le Monde newspaper. And Halloween-related sales have almost doubled, from $37.5 million in 1998 to $60 million in 1999, the latest year available.