On November 1st, the French will be marking la Toussaint* or All Saints' Day. In the Catholic Church, this is traditionally a day when the Saints would be celebrated, but now, in France, it is widely known as a day for remembering the dead.
It was as early as the 9th century that the celebration of la Toussaint was followed by a commemoration of the dead. In 998, the monks of Cluny instituted a feast of the dead on November 2nd, which, in the 13th century, entered the Roman liturgy as a memorial to the deceased (All Souls' Day). Nowadays in France, November 1st is a public holiday and it is common practise to commemorate the dead on this day instead of November 2nd.
For centuries, it was the custom to place candles on the graves of loved-ones, to symbolize life after death. Since the late 19th century, however, it has become more typical that floral contributions be placed on graves. The above painting by Emile Friant depicts a19th century French family on its way to place flowers at the cemetery.
In 1919, during the first ever celebration of the 1918 armistice, President Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau ordered that all graves in France be decorated with flowers. This gesture helped cement the widespread change in custom.
Today this tradition is little changed, with chrysanthemums being by far the most common flower, due to their longevity and autumn flowering. During the last few weeks of October the supermarkets and florists carry large stocks of chrysanthemums for this purpose and over 25 million pots are sold here every year.
A word of warning: in France, never give chrysanthemums to someone living - it will not be taken at all well!
There are a great many French regional sayings that go with la Toussaint, which mostly tend to do with gardening conditions and predicting the weather in France at this time of year:
De Saint Michel à la Toussaint, laboure grand train - From St Michel to All Saints', work the plough
À la Toussaint, sème ton grain - Sow your seeds at All Saints' Day
À la Toussaint, manchons au bras, gants aux mains - At All Saints', roll up your sleeves and put on your
- À la Toussaint blé semé, aussi le fruit enfermé (or les fruits serrés) - At All Saints' sow your wheat and plant your encased fruits
À la Toussaint, commence l’été de la Saint-Martin - At All Saints', the St Martin summer starts
À la Toussaint, le froid revient et met l’hiver en train - At All Saints' the cold comes back to start the winter
S’il neige à la Toussaint, l’hiver sera froid - If it snows at All Saints', the winter will be a cold one
- S’il fait soleil à la Toussaint, l’hiver sera précoce - If it's sunny at All Saints', the winter will be early
- S'il fait chaud le jour de la Toussaint, il tombe toujours de la neige le lendemain - If it's hot on All Saints' day, snow will soon follow
- Tel Toussaint, tel Noël - As it is at All Saints', it will also be at Christmas
- Givre à la Toussaint, Noël malsain - Frost at All Saints', unhealthy Christmas
- Autant d’heures de soleil à la Toussaint, autant de semaines à souffler dans ses mains - For as many hours of sun at All Saints', there will be as many weeks of blowing into one's hands
- Suivant le temps de la Toussaint, l’hiver sera ou non malsain - According to the weather at Alls Saints' the winter may or may not be unhealthy
- De la Toussaint à la fin de l’Avent, jamais trop de pluie ou de vent or entre la Toussaint et Noël ne peut trop pleuvoir ni venter - From All Saints' to the end of the Advent (or: between All Saints' and Christmas) there's never too much rain or wind
- Vent de Toussaint, terreur du marin - All Saints' wind, sailors terror
Le vent souffle les trois quarts de l’année comme il souffle la veille de la Toussaint - The wind blows as much on the eve of All Saints' as it does for three
quarters of the year
And last but not least
La Toussaint venue, laisse ta charrue - At All Saints', leave your plough alone
Le jour des morts ne remue pas la terre, si tu ne veux sortir les ossements de tes pères - Don't dig the earth on the day of the dead, if you don't want to dig up
the bones of your fathers
On that unsettling note, what of Halloween, you might ask? Well, until very recently, Halloween was not at all celebrated in France. To many it is still seen as a uniquely North American event. That said, as each year passes, more and more children and teenagers enter into the spirit and dress up in ghoulish costumes, knocking at doors for sweets or going to the cinema to watch scary movies. It is all very good natured and the children are always very pleasantly surprised if the neighbours remember to lay in supplies. (When our own children were small, we used to pre-warn the neighbours that we were going to visit, to avoid any disappointment or nasty surprises!).
* La Toussaint is derived from la fête de tous les Saints