One of the most unexpected holidays in France is November 1st. It is an old Christian tradition known as All Saints’ Day and is actually an official holiday in France. All shops, schools, government offices, and businesses are closed, and most people have the day off.
The day before November 1st, October 31st is Halloween, but that is not a day that is well-celebrated in France compared to other countries. All Saints’ on the other hand is a holiday for everyone. Although France today is a secular country and All Saints’ is a Catholic occasion, old habits die hard.
In French, it is called Toussaint or “Tous les saints” which literally translates to “all the saints”. The day was originally meant to celebrate the French saints as this is a country with a long christian tradition.
But All Saints’ actually has its origins in a much older Celtic pagan holiday that got co-opted into the current November 1st holiday. So let’s find out a bit more about how France came to celebrate Toussaint (and what happens on November 2nd), shall we? Allons-y!
There are a lot of saints that you may notice in names and places around France, and cities like Paris even have their own patron saints. In addition, the French catholic calendar, each day a particular saint is feted and most of the traditional boys and girls names come from these saints’ names.
The tradition dates back to Ancient Gaul, as Old France was called. The Celtic Gaul tribes were spread out across Western Europe and the British isles from before the days of the Roman Empire.
Their celebration of Samhain believed that the dead and spirits of the underworld could walk among us. For 7 days they would celebrate and rub shoulders with the dead, with the Druids conducting of the festivities. It was also the start of the Celtic New Year.
Etymologically Samhain is constructed from ” sam ” for ” summer, the season ” and ” haf ” for ” end ” in Breton. Halloween and Samhain mark with the Celts, the beginning of winter, and is the true Celtic New Year.
The belief was that on October 31st, All Hallows Eve (which became Halloween), the Celts celebrated the ghosts of the dead returning to earth. Then on the night before the New Year (November 1 or All Saints’ Day), the worlds of the living and the dead mingled.
In the Catholic church, a somewhat similar holiday was ordered when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs on 13 May 610, with an anniversary to be celebrated every year.
Later in 835, Emperor Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) and Pope Gregory IV moved the All Saint’ day to November 1st in order to try to stamp out the pagan celebration and get people to convert to Catholicism.
In the Middle Ages, it was noted that the celebration occurred at the potato harvest time. Adults and children of all ages would be out of school in order to harvest the potatoes and other fruits and vegetables.
In France, it was Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, who decided to establish these religious days as official national holidays giving everyone the day off. There was one for each season:
- Ascension in spring (May)
- Assumption in summer (August)
- All Saints in autumn (November)
- Christmas in December.
In addition, French schools are closed for 2 weeks for the Toussaint holidays, keeping the tradition of the “harvest holidays” alive.
All Saints’ Day vs All Souls’ day
These days there is a bit of a confusion as these days most French people mark November 1st by visiting the graves of relatives to leave flowers and a mark of respect, rather than going to church.
While November 1st is All Saints day, the day after November 2nd is le jour des morts, meaning “the day of the dead”. Colloquially it is known as All Souls’ Day, or “la Commémoration de tous les fidèles défunts” meaning “the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed”.
Dead relatives are supposed to be commemorated on November 2nd, not November 1st. But since Toussaint is a public holiday, most religious French people choose to honour the dead on the 1st of November.
Chrysanthemums are laid on gravestones of the dearly departed. (For the superstitious, these flowers are never offered to the living.) The flowers are relatively out of season in autumn, making it all the more special.
The tradition of chrysanthemums date back to WWI, when the French government ordered the flowers to be laid on the graves of the dead for Armistice day which is November 11th (another public holiday in France).
Over €170million in flowers is spent in France each year on All Saints’ day. It is a tradition today observed by the religious and non-religious, to say thanks and commemorate those who have been lost.
If you enjoyed this article, you may wish to read about other celebrations where the French do enjoy it up. Epiphany, anyone? A bientôt!