toussaint France tribute to the dead with chrysanthemum and candle

Al Saints' Day, or Day of the Dead

All Saints’ Day in France marks a school and work break half-way between Summer and Christmas. For the French catholics, “Toussaint” is a special time for honouring the dead. A time to visit cemeteries and put flowers on the graves. However, for others the end of October is associated with Halloween. The French way bien sûr !

French people commemorate the dead in Autumn on the 1st of November. The date is a public holiday. All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day?
In addition the catholic tradition makes a distinction between: Toussaint (All Saints’ Day, on the 1st of November) and the “Commémoration des fidèles défunts” (All Souls’ Day, on the 2nd of November). Dead relatives are supposed to be commemorated on the 2nd of November. But since Toussaint is a public holiday, French people honour the dead on the 1st of November. Members of a family usually gather to go to the cemetery together. Family members decorate the grave with potted: heather, (bruyère), chrysanthemum (chrysanthèmes) and/or immortal wreaths (couronnes d’immortelles – everlasting flowers) Sometimes they light candles to symbolise happiness in the afterlife. They can also attend special church services: the All Saints Mass (Messe de la Toussaint).

The opportunity of a family reunion
Toussaint can be a very important moment for families. For instance they can spend a day together in a respectful atmosphere. A time which generally excludes usual family fights… even though regrets and sorrow can be a source of tension. To sum up, Toussaint is an opportunity to strengthen family links spending a nice day together or expressing common grief.

The origins of Toussaint in France
All Saints’ Day in France – Cemetery of Père Lachaise, Paris © French Moments For a long time Toussaint was celebrated after the Easter celebrations or after Pentecost. From 610AD, Pope Boniface IV made the 13th of May a day consecrated to the memory of the Christian martyrs. The 1st of November used to be Samhain (later known as the “Celtic New Year“). The pagan day started a week of festivities in honour of the beginning of the year and of the dark season. Pope Gregory III may well be at the origin of the first Toussaint celebration falling on the 1st November. However it is Pope Gregory IV who ordered in 835 all the Christians to celebrate Toussaint on the 1st of November. In France, Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious relayed Gregory IV’s decision.

All Saints Day and potato harvest!
The Toussaint period used to be the same as the potato harvest time. All the family was working in the fields. This implied that the children were massively missing classes. Consequently, “potato holidays” were organised. They lasted two weeks, usually between the 22st of October and the 3rd of November. They later became the Toussaint holidays. A school break that is still enjoyed by French pupils today!

What about Halloween in France?
The ossuary of the catacombs of Paris © French Moments The night between the 31st of October and Toussaint’s day is Halloween night. Halloween is the contraction of “All Hallows Eve”. However the customs originates from Samhain. The pagan religious festival originates from Ireland. It refers to the legend of Jack O’Lantern, a greedy drunkard who cheated the Devil twice. After his death, his soul could not enter Heaven or Hell. He convinced the Devil to give him an ember, which he put in a hollowed out turnip. It provided light for himself in his everlasting wandering.

Halloween in America
After a famine in 1646/1648, Halloween immigrated to the United States along with the Irish people. At the end of the 19th century, American people began celebrating Halloween with costumes and decorations including skeletons, ghosts or witches. In the 1930’s the trick or treat custom appeared. Disguised children knocked at the neighbours’ doors asking for candies. In the gloomy crypt under the tower of St. Michel, Bordeaux © French Moments

Is Halloween celebrated in France today?
In France Halloween was spreading very slowly until the 1990s. That decade saw a growing interest in celebrating Halloween. They are many reasons to explain this, such as: The popular “Olaween” advertising campaign of the telephone company Orange, A few specific events in Disneyland Paris, Other commercial initiatives made the American celebration popular in France. Therefore, Halloween was rejected by those who called it a folkloric marketing operation.

French-style Halloween: a trashy and gruesome celebration?
For in France, Halloween presents a trashy and bloody dimension that differs from the original American version. The celebration is particularly animated by an atmosphere of fear and provocation. In other words, French Halloween makes wide use of hideousness, gruesomeness, witchcraft. Therefore the youth adopted it rapidly for its taste of paranormal and witchcraft, as well as role plays and “Gothic” fashion. Some people see it as a macabre version of carnival! Unsurprisingly, several French religious leaders opposed this new version of Halloween. Above all they despised it for encouraging a culture of death. The religious authorities question the normalisation of the occult world on children… at a time when the focus should be on Toussaint! The reaction of Paris’ diocese was an interested one. For instance the religious authorities organised a rival event – a play on words: “Holy Wins”. All Saints’ Day in France – The cemetery of Passy, Paris © French Moments

Des bonbons ou des farces ?
Nevertheless, around the year 2000, costumes and decorations filled the shops: ghosts, skeletons, witches, Frankenstein monsters, vampires or mummies… Candies sales increased by 30%. Children dressed in gory Halloween costumes put into action a French adaptation of the American trick or treat : “des bonbons ou des farces” (candies or pranks). The less cooperating neighbours might end up with their garden and house decorated with toilet tissue or eggs. Digging and carving pumpkins in order to make lanterns was also a family activity that children enjoyed a lot. But from 2008, it seems that the French’s interest in Halloween is stalling. The celebration still exists, but it has become more discreet. Eventually, Halloween sales (decorations, costumes, candies) never outdid Toussaint flowers sales.

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