La Fête des Morts

IMG_2582‘La Toussaint’ or All Saints’ Day, often referred to in France as ‘La fête des morts’, is a public holiday held on November 1st in commemoration of the dead.

Strange, the cultural differences around this day. ‘Fêter’ means to celebrate but there’s not much festivity in the air. The month of November tends to be gloomy in France and chrysanthemums add about the only color at the cemetery. November really is about honoring, or at least remembering, the dead (followed by Remembrance Day on Nov. 11).

In English-speaking countries, Hallowe’en is the main event: an irreverent but fun-loving ghoul-fest. It is a death-defying, joke-ridden time for everyone from teens to tots to dress up, gorge on candy and shout “Trick or treat, smell my feet, I want something good to eat.”

I’m disappointed that Hallowe’en has never really taken off in France. I like the idea of a special day to honor our dearly departed, but I wish it could happen in a joyful way. To put, as one of my most beloved television comedy characters* once said, the ‘fun’ into funeral.

Remembering those we have lost should be a happy time of shared memories and jokes, of laughter with tears. It doesn’t mean we’re not sad that they’re gone. It means that life is for the living, and deserving of celebration. That those very people we are honouring would probably have wished for us to remember them with a smile.

And at this time of year especially, I could use a jack-o-lantern jolt of brightness and fun. November is my least favorite month of the year. My hypochondriac anxieties tend to rear their ugly head and I become convinced of my impending demise. Perhaps it’s the looming winter that gets me down, as the days grow shorter and darkness falls early. Whatever it is, Hallowe’en has always worked to cheer me up and banish the evil spirits.

DSC00241When my kids were small, we decorated the house, carved a pumpkin or two, loaded up on candy and went trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. There were quite a few families with young children in our village near Lyon, and for awhile it felt like the event was catching on.

But it seems to have fizzled out lately, at least in our parts. The French look upon Hallowe’en as an American import, not really belonging to their culture. Fun for the wee ones, perhaps, but badly timed: it falls in the middle of the Toussaint school holidays when many people go away.

Whether you’re commemorating your dearly departed at the cemetery or warding off the evil spirits in full ghost and goblins regalia, may it be with joy. Wherever you are, and whoever you have lost, may this day bring you fond remembrance.

What about you? How do you celebrate Hallowe’en or All Saints’ Day? Party or bouquet of flowers?

Liz Smith as Nana*Nana, played by the excellent Liz Smith in The Royle Family

23 thoughts on “La Fête des Morts

  1. If you want to see Halloween celebrated in France, go to the Alsace. There was a huge procession in our village – everyone turns out wearing costumes, there are floats and as they walk down the street the shopkeepers and inhabitants throw sweets out of the window. When they arrive at the Mairie, the town council throw sweets out of the window. It was my turn to throw the sweets in 2008 – the swarm of people was just amazing.
    I don’t like Toussaint at all – it just makes me horribly sad to see people going back and forth to the cemetery with chrysanthemums. Bah.

    1. Interesting…so Hallowe’en in France seems to be quite regional. Perhaps it’s just in the Haute Savoie that they don’t celebrate it. In Lyon they certainly did a bit more. But to the point of throwing sweets out the window? Wow, that Is yet another reason to visit Alsace. In all these years, I’ve never made it there but perhaps this year we’ll make it. Lucky you to have been part of the party!

  2. I never cared for the intrusion of Halloween in the UK as we had our own tradition of Guy Fawkes night on Nov 5th with bonfires and fireworks. Children would make up a dummy from old clothes and push it round the streets in a barrow collecting ‘Penny for the Guy’ for a few days beforehand.
    That tradition seems to have disappeared now and I see more of the trick or treaters about having fun and dressing up. I mind less seeing them because of the joy they impart during this gloomy time, but at least our bonfire night and the fireworks survive.
    xxx Huge Hugs Mel xxx

    1. I’ve heard of Guy Fawkes night but never experienced it live….sounds like fun! Guess it’s hard to stop kids from loving dressing up and getting all those treats. Glad to hear that both traditions survive and bring joy in your parts. Big bises xx

  3. @”‘La Toussaint’ or All Saints’ Day, often referred to in France as ‘La fête des morts’…” – very bizarre, indeed: saints ou morts? go figure… 🙂
    * * *
    we don’t celebrate it… c’est grave, Dr MELewis?… 😉 during our 5 years in Houston, TX, we didn’t celebrate it either, our 2 kids weren’t into it, but we always offered ‘treats’ to those who would ring our bell… 🙂 American relatives get here tonight for the weekend, no connection with “haloïne”! 😉
    * * *
    have a sunny Friday like here and friendly hugs, Mel B

  4. When I was young we had friends from Boston and Betty (the mum) always included us in Halloween celebrations. Back then it was rare in England to make a fuss but now the US glee has crossed the pond and it is celebrated just as wildly all over the UK. Here, you are right it is very different though I have friends who make a big fuss but only indoors – to go trick or treating is not something the three children have done or are likely to do. Fete des Morts I rather like but then my sombre side is normally at full throttle in November so I guess it fits. Above all, stay calm – you are NOT going to die – after all Christmas is just around the corner 😉

    1. Thank you, Osyth. As soon as the festive season hits in December, I’ll feel better again but I fear a few dark weeks ahead when the weather turns wet (as it must – but so far it’s been beautiful!). Enjoy your Hallowe’en celebrations as best you can – and do give full expression to your dark side!

      1. The dark side is raring to go, have no fear – and for what it’s worth I’ll be sending positive thoughts to get you through the cold, damp and dark and out the other side to festive lights and raging good cheer in December 🙂

  5. Interesting to know the French view of it. I have been asking friends from other parts if Halloween is big where they’re from. It has become big in England and Ireland whereas when I was growing up there was no word of it. No excuse for free candy for me!
    I personally am not really a fan as I always get roped into dressing up. Although the dressing up is the fun part, the parties recently have been a bit of a letdown. I’d happily be at home in PJs with a nice cup of cocoa!

    1. PJ’s at home sounds like the perfect costume and venue! Halloween certainly seems to provoke mixed feelings. The dressing up part is a lot of work, so while I miss the fun of trick or treater’s, I’m relieved not to have to deal with the rest. We had not a single person at the door, so I’ll have to eat all the candy… 😉

    1. David, you are a darling! (But you already knew that,right?) I am most honored, and will pay it back. I try not to have any policies about things that make people happy. Big bises xx

  6. Pardon me but la Toussaint and la fête des morts are not the same day . Toussaint is November the 1st, la fête des morts is November the 2nd . You got an excuse since in the late decades French people themselves seem to have lost the knowledge of the difference . When i was a kid it was still clear : one day to honour the saints, one day to remember our dead .

    Halloween is related to Toussaint anyway : “all hollow eve”, isn’t it ? I hate this new trend here because of its origin . I remember perfectly how it started, because I used to work with teenagers . All began with the horror movies called Halloween . Before then, only French people who had traveled and lived in Barbarian countries knew this name, the others had not the slightest idea of what it was . I can swear you that as a kid I never heard of it, and it went on like this until the 80s and the movie . Commercial movies are one thing I hate, movies that are liked because of a fashion are a thing I hate, and movies designed by computers for teenagers are a thing I hate . Oh ! how did I love American cinema when it was made by artists for an adult audience ! . But what I hate the most is “Making money is what matters above all”, and as soon as the movie Halloween became a big deal among innocent brainless teens, of course the “shopkeepers” threw a huge promotional effort to create a new occasion to sell their sh..
    That’s why I’m against Halloween where it doesn’t belong .

    1. Well, that’s the first I heard of November 2nd being a separate holiday for the dead! Thanks for the interesting piece of info. As for Hallowe’en (All Hallows’ Eve), it may be new in France but it is an ancient tradition thought to have pagan roots in Welsh and Celtic history. Certainly it was always celebrated as a time for the children to dress up as ghosts and goblins when I was growing up in Toronto. The candy being handed out at the door was certainly an incentive, but even more was the excitement of going out in the dark when the ‘spirits’ were out. I agree it has become far too commercial. But perhaps because of my North American roots I am more tolerant of that.

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