All you need to know about All Saints’ Day in France

All you need to know about All Saints’ Day in France

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated August 17, 2022

While less famous than other Christian celebrations, la fête de la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) is still big enough to be a public holiday in France. In fact, its influence also spread to other French-speaking countries like Belgium and Switzerland. The celebration takes its origin from pagan traditions to honor the dead and to mark the passage of seasons, halfway between summer and winter. To this day, it’s a yearly occasion for family members to gather and to remember their deceased loved ones. Let’s discover what it’s all about in more detail.

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What is All Saints’ Day (fête de la Toussaint)?

In French, Toussaint is a contraction of Tous les saints (All the Saints). All Saints’ Day is held every year on November 1st, which is a public holiday in France. It’s immediately followed on November 2nd by le jour des morts (the day of the dead or All Souls’ Day), officially known as la Commémoration de tous les fidèles défunts (the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed). However, the two are often confused and since only la Toussaint is a public holiday, it has become the de facto day of the dead.

La fête de la Toussaint is also the occasion for les vacances de la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day Holiday), a two-week school holiday throughout France. It’s effectively the equivalent of the half-term break between summer and Christmas.

What are the origins of All Saints’ Day in France?

As is often the case for public holidays in France, All Saints’ Day is a Christian celebration, mixed with some pagan traditions. Originally and for about two centuries, it was actually not celebrated on November 1st, but rather in Spring. In 610 AD, Pope Boniface IV chose May 13th to commemorate Christian martyrs. However, Pope Gregory IV officially moved it to November 1st, probably in an attempt to compete against Samhain. This pagan feast, which also gave birth to Halloween, served to mark the end of the harvest season and the start of winter. Louis le Pieux (Louis the Pious), the King of the Franks and Carolingian Emperor at the time, confirmed the decision.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed was established on November 2nd a couple of centuries later, in the 11th century, by Pope Leo IX.

How do you celebrate All Saints’ Day in France?

Though it may not be as big as other Christian feasts, All Saints’ Day is still very much celebrated. It’s a time for family members to gather and commemorate their deceased loved ones. It’s traditional to go to le cimetière (the cemetery) to decorate les tombes (the graves) with des fleurs (flowers), or even sometimes with des bougies allumées (lighted candles). 

La chrysanthème (the chrysanthemum) is by far the favorite flower to be placed on graves. Indeed, it’s one of the rare flowers to blossom in fall, which may explain the choice. This dates back to the first anniversary of the end of World War I on November 11, 1919. To mark the occasion, the French government requested all the graves of deceased soldiers to be decorated with flowers and chrysanthemums suddenly multiplied in cemeteries throughout France. The tradition still continues to this day, so much so that the chrysanthemum now represents la fleur des morts (the flower of the dead). As such, offering un bouquet de chrysanthèmes (a bunch of chrysanthemums) when visiting friends or family in France is considered bad taste.

November 1st, a unique public holiday in France

Taking place the day after Halloween, All Saints’ Day is a unique celebration in France, used as a way to commemorate the dead. The public holiday is an opportunity for families all over France to gather in cemeteries, in order to remember and honor their loved ones.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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