All Saints’ Day is known in France as “Toussaint” which is the contraction of “Tous les Saints”, meaning “All the Saints” in English. The solemnity takes place in Autumn on the 1st November and is a Catholic tradition of honouring the dead.
The commemoration of Toussaint in France
French people commemorate their dead on the 1st of November. The catholic tradition makes a distinction between Toussaint (All Saints’ Day, on the 1st of November) from the “Commémoration des fidèles défunts” (All Soul’s 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 their dead on the 1st of November. Members of a family usually gather to go to the cemetery together. They put chrysanthemum flowers on the grave and light candles to symbolise happiness in the afterlife. They can also attend special church services.
Toussaint can be a very important moment for families. They can spend a day together in a respectful atmosphere which generally excludes usual family fights, even though regrets and sorrow can be a source of tension. Toussaint is an opportunity to strengthen family links spending a nice day together or expressing common grief.
Origins of Toussaint in France
For a long time Toussaint was celebrated after the Easter celebrations or after Pentecost. From 610AD, the 13th of May became the day consecrated to the memory of the Christian martyrs by Pope Boniface IV. The 1st of November used to be Samhain day (later known as the “Celtic New Year”), with which started a week of festivities in honour of the beginning of the year and of the dark season. Pope Gregory III might have been at the origin of the first Toussaint celebration on the 1st of November, but it is Pope Gregory IV who, in 835, ordered all the Christians to celebrate Toussaint on the 1st of November. In France, it is the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious who relayed Gregory IV’s decision.
The Toussaint period used to be the same as the potato harvest time. All the family was working in the fields, which implies that the children were massively missing classes. Consequently, “potato holidays” were organized. They were later known as the Toussaint holidays. They lasted two weeks, usually between the 22st of October and the 3rd of November.
Halloween in France
The night between the 31st of October and Toussaint’s day is Halloween night. Even though Halloween is the contraction of “All Hallows Eve”, this tradition originates from Samhain’s day. It was born in Ireland with 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, but he convinced the Devil to give him an ember, which he put in a hollowed out turnip to provide light for himself in his everlasting wandering.
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 doors of the neighbours asking for candies.
In France Halloween was spreading very slowly until the “Olaween” advertising campaign of the telephone company Orange, a few specific events in Disneyland Paris and other commercial initiatives made the American celebration popular in France. Halloween was rejected by those who called it a marketing operation, and was opposed by several religious leaders since it is celebrated on the same day as Toussaint: for example, Paris’ diocese organised a rival event: “Holy Wins”.
Nevertheless, around the year 2000, the shops were filled with costumes and decorations, candies sales increased by 30% and children dressed as ghosts, skeletons, witches, Frankenstein monsters, vampires or mummies 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 since 2008, it is obvious that Halloween’s best days in France are over. The celebration still exists, but it has become more discreet. Eventually, Halloween sales (decorations, costumes, candies) never outdid Toussaint flowers sales.
Find out more about Autumn in France.