France the French way


Toussaint – Don’t get the flowers wrong!

Posted: 2011-10-31

Within the next few days no-one can avoid the 1st November.  In France this day is known as La Toussaint (All Saints Day), a day when one celebrates the lives of all the saints. Equally important as 1 November is the 2 November, which is known as the Fete des Morts (Festival of the Dead).

In France the festival of La Toussaint is astounding. It is a public holiday in France on this day, and it is one of the busiest days on the AutoRoute network, as families travel all over France to visit their family graves. It is thought that some 70% of families will travel on this day, or these two days, to visit their family cemeteries.

It is a very noticeable time of the year, and you cannot be unaware of this festival. One of the reasons for this is that at this time all the cemeteries are decorated with chrysanthemums. If you are in the provinces you will notice in the fields areas set aside full of chrysanthemums being grown to be sold for La Toussaint. I remember when I was staying in a charming house  in Venasque, where in the local supermarket of Pernes les Fontaines, all the aisles of the store were full of these flowers. Stalls on the side of the roads obviously advertised the multi-coloured displays of these flowers, and florist shops groaned with this expanse of flowers.

Local villages have competitions organised to try and have the most attractive local cemetery in the district. Villagers will be encouraged in the weeks leading up to the 1 November to assist with cleaning and tidying of their cemetery. “Let’s try and have the best cemetery in the region”, the sign on the town hall noticed board announced. Then in the days leading up to Toussaint the chrysanthemums start arriving to decorate the tombstones. Flowers of every colour arrive, and by 1 November the cemetries are like one giant florist, with every bare space filled by another pot of flowers. I have read that there is up to 100 million Euros spent on chrysanthemums for this day!

Then the families arrive at their local cemeteries, either before or after an impressive lunch together, and they assemble around their family tomb to remember their forebears, through prayer and song. This is the day you communicate with the spirits of the dead, and is a process that has carried out by many races since ancient times.

Flowers everywhere

Although the period of La Toussaint lasts over two days, in France it is only a recognised holiday on the 1 November, so families tend to visit the cemeteries just on this day.

Then in the weeks after this the flowers in the cemeteries deteriorate and are removed, the fields are replaced with winter produce, and the Chrysanthemum disappears until the next Toussaint day arrives!

Throughout Europe this flower the chrysanthemum, is symbolic of death and is only used for funerals or on graves – you don’t see them anywhere else. When I was learning French in Christchurch (NZ), my French teacher who came from Paris recounted me this story. She had fallen in love with a young NZ man, and decided that it was time for her to fly to NZ to meet his family and future fiancé. It was a very exciting and daunting moment for her to arrive after a 30 hour flight to meet her future in laws. After collecting her luggage from the conveyor belt and passing through Customs, she stepped out into the Arrival Hall, and there was her fiancé and his family waiting for her. From behind his back he pulled out a large bouquet of flowers which he presented to her – a large bunch of Chrysanthemums! On seeing these she burst in to tears – but he wasn’t to know of her European customs, and I know he’s never done it again!