'C'est l'Halloween': the story behind the greatest French Halloween song ever

'C'est l'Halloween': the story behind the greatest French Halloween song ever
C'est L'Halloween is a song learned by French students in Canada. (lobo235/Flickr)

Written by Dave Shumka

Every October for the past three decades, thousands of French students across Canada have sung the same spooky song: "C'est l'Halloween," a perfect tune for kids learning the language.

If you're not familiar with it, it's basically a list of spooky Halloween imagery — a witch, a ghost, a gloomy night — but it never crosses over into actual terror. On top of that, the simple two-word chorus is "C'est l'Halloween," which just means "It's Halloween." Plus, it offers kids an opportunity to yell "HEY!" at the top of their lungs.

While thousands of Canadians have a bond with the song, few know the artist behind it. After all, when you're seven years old, you don't buy albums or even choose the radio station. And if the singer doesn't have a TV show, you probably don't know his or her name. So we dug a little deeper.

The song was written in 1981 by a young teacher named Matt Maxwell, and it was the song that inspired him to leave his teaching job and begin a 15-year career as a children's performer — a career that included thousands of concerts, six albums and a Juno Award nomination. I spoke with him by phone from his home of Bowen Island, B.C.

"'C'est l'Halloween' was one of the first French songs I wrote for kids," he says. "It was back in my first year of teaching core French in Halifax in the early '80s. It was actually October 30th and I said, 'Oh, it's Halloween tomorrow. I have to write a song for my students.' That's essentially what I did. And I tried it out the next day with my Grade 4, 5, and 6s. And you can't get a much simpler refrain than 'C'est L'Halloween.' They all liked doing the 'Heys!' etc., so essentially that was the song that inspired me to actually do my first album."

That first album, Comment ca va?, was recorded three years later, while Maxwell was teaching in Toronto. He spent his Christmas holidays in the studio with a band that included future k.d. lang producer Ben Mink (who plays the reverse violin on "C'est l'Halloween") and some kids from the Gabrielle-Roy school in Toronto.

An assortment of characters dress up the hallways at Laidlaw School. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"After I released the album, I just sort of jumped off a cliff and quit my teaching job and just started doing shows," Maxwell says. He played thousands of shows at children's festivals and school auditoriums. "Teachers were always looking for a chance to get out of the classroom, as were the kids. I already had them won over even before the concert started because they weren't in class."

"C'est l'Halloween" became the biggest hit of Maxwell's career, though he encourages us to add quotation marks around "hit." The album was certified gold in Canada, meaning it sold over 40,000 copies. One of the reasons for its success, says Maxwell, is its accessibility — it creates a scary mood without actually causing fear.

"That was 25 years ago," explains Maxwell. "We've all evolved as a culture over the last 25 years, and what was maybe slightly scary 25 years ago isn't remotely scary now. The average young person sees multiple decapitations every day or whatever else." Though, he adds, "I did get some negative feedback from some fundamentalist religionist who felt that it was offensive to talk about witches and things like that. But Halloween is Halloween, and it's not gonna go away. So I'm not gonna rescind my song because somebody's offended by it."

One thing has always bothered me about the song. The chorus goes, "C'est l'Halloween, c'est l'Halloween, HEY!" That's two "Halloween"s and one "Hey." But when I was in Grade 2, my classmates would yell "Hey!" after every "Halloween." As a budding control freak, it bothered me. Did these kids not appreciate the concept of delayed gratification? According to Maxwell, what I witnessed was the norm.

Jack 'o' lanterns spell out a warning: "I'd turn back if I were you." (Submitted by Stephie McGuire)

"I realized after a few shows there was no point in me being a control freak when I was doing it in a concert. If they wanted to do the 'Hey's, I couldn't really stop them."

Almost 30 years later, the song is played in schools across Canada as well as Europe and Australia. Maxwell no longer performs, though he still makes music for kids as the co-creator of AIM Language Learning, a teaching program currently being used by several hundred thousand students.

The company has released an interactive Halloween story, featuring the original "C'est l'Halloween," as well as a 2012 version for a new generation. While the song's original audience now has kids of their own, Maxwell notes, "Yes, but no grandkids yet."