November 1st is big holiday in France. It is Toussaint, All Saints Day. Well it’s actually a mixture of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but those are details for the church to quibble over. It’s a day when people head to the cemetery.
There are two common architectural aspects of all French cemeteries: great grey walls surround a great grey army of tombstones. Even the smallest cemetery has a formidable presence of stone; even the grandest is a place of earthbound drear. Until Toussaint! Big and little, threatening or dreary, all the cemeteries of France are gloriously filled with flowers on this day. To honor their ancestors, no one goes to the cemetery empty handed. Some folks will arrive with plastic flowers that will last until next year’s visit, but most will arrive with an overflowing pot of brightly blooming chrysanthemums. The crosses and tombstones of the cemetery will soon glow from the reflected color of this expansive autumnal bouquet.
Chrysanthemums are probably the flower of choice because they are colorful, bloom late, and do not mind a little frost. Because just like Halloween in Vermont, Toussaint is always cold and dreary. The real signal of winter’s approach. There is an expression in French “faire un temps de Toussaint” which refers to cold, damp, dreary days at any time of year. It seems sort of ironic that, with it’s pageant of glowing flowers, the cemetery is the “sunniest” place in the village.
In France chrysanthemums are rarely used as garden decoration and taking one as a hostess gift is a quick way to loose a friend. That friend will either be upset because you foresee their imminent death or may take it that you are implying that they’re just as good dead as alive.
During the summer it’s sweet to notice a row of chrysanthemums tucked away in the back corner of a garden. Spring cuttings are tucked in from last year’s plants and tended all summer with the hope of a strong plant with perfect blooms for the 1st week of November. Loved ones are thought of each time the plant is tended, replanted, and finally carried to the cemetery. A touch of sadness mingled with a simple labor of love.
This past Saturday I tried to discreetly tuck into the cemetery to capture this parade of villagers, but the sense of respectfulness and the intimacy of the families prevented me from being a photographic voyeur. Instead I wandered from grave to grave. I peeked at couples that had arrived after other family members, too late to place their flowers front and center, and working discreetly to rearrange things. Parents whispering little stories to their children about Meme or TonTon. A husband filled a watering can to bring to his misty-eyed wife.
The prescribed days and rituals of Toussaint have changed over the years, but I think if I was a ghostly spirit watching over the French landscape this past week, I would appreciate the gaiety of the chrysanthemums and take this blanket of color and warm sentiments as a good sign that it’s time to tuck my soul into a peaceful rest.
For insights into french traditions and a great site for learning french I encourage you to check out Laura K. Lawless -http://www.lawlessfrench.com