It is the day when all the Saints recognised by the Roman Catholic church are honoured. The following day is Le Jour des Morts (All Soul’s Day), when people pray for the souls of the departed. Both days are national holidays and children have a two-week holiday from school at this time of the year.
The origins of All Saint’s Day go back to the 5th Century AD, when the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain was celebrated at the beginning of November. Samhain marked the start of the dark half of the year and was the time of feasting and drinking when it was possible for the living to communicate with the dead. This festival was adopted by the Christian church and transformed by Pope Boniface IV into a day dedicated to the mother of God and all the saints who had been martyred. It was originally celebrated on 13th May, but around 830 AD Pope Gregory IV moved it to November and rededicated it to all saints.
Today, La Toussaint is marked by the lighting of numerous candles in cemeteries and the decorating of graves with chrysanthemums, the flowers associated with death. Stone lanterns of the dead, which are lit during the festival, can also be found in many cemeteries, especially in the Massif Central region in central France, and in Brittany. Family reunions are held to honour the dead, church bells are rung, and churches are decorated with chrysanthemums, candles and banners.
On the eve of Le Jour des Morts churches are draped in black, funeral songs are sung and prayers for the dead are recited. People visit cemeteries to pray at their family graves, then have parties involving singing and telling stories about the dead. At midnight they eat a special supper for the dead which traditionally includes milk, black grain, bacon, pancakes and cider.
The most famous cemetery in France is the Père-Lachaise in Paris and is well worth a visit during La Toussaint, or at other times. Established by Napoleon I in 1804 and located in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, the Père-Lachaise is one of the most visited cemeteries in the world, and the final resting place of many famous people, including Honoré de Balzac, the French novelist; the Polish composer, Frédéric Chopin; Jim Morrison, the American singer with the Doors; and Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer.
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