Halloween in France
As the end of October approaches I notice that our neighbours are starting to place bright orange pumpkins and gourds around the boundaries of their properties, on walls, banks, benches, and windowsills. Perhaps they like the decoration, for they go to a lot of effort growing these massive vegetables in their potagers but rarely seem to eat them. Pumpkins are, of course, a popular symbol of Halloween, so I wondered if this practice of decorating the boundaries was a peculiar French tradition associated with this Autumn festival.
The practice of carving pumpkins, turnips or gourds goes back many hundreds of years. Carved and lit Halloween pumpkins, like their earlier predecessors turnips, are said to either ward off evil spirits, or alternatively provide a welcoming light to the souls of dead relatives roaming the earth on All Hallows Eve (Halloween). This primitive light is often known as a Jack-O’-Lantern. My research suggested two alternative origins, both Celtic. The Jack-O’-Lantern was so named after the phenomena of a strange light flickering over Irish peat bogs that was called Will-o’-the-wisp or Jack-O’-Lantern. Another story relates to a fictional character ‘Jack’ who is said to have cheated the devil twice, and was unable to enter either heaven or hell, but was condemned to roam the earth forever.
The word Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Eve and dates from about 1745. However, the Christian observance of All Hallows Eve has been in existence much longer and possibly has its roots in the pagan festival of Samhain, which marked the end of Autumn and the beginning of the dark days of winter. All Hallows Eve is the first day of the three day Christian celebration dedicated to commemorating the dead – Allhallowtide. The first day is 31 October, All Hallows Eve, the second 1 November is All Saints Day and the third, 2 November is All Souls Day.
Chrysanthemums and candles
Here in France the commercial Halloween celebrations popular in the UK and North America hasn’t really caught on. We don’t get trick or treated, and there are only a few half-hearted tacky witches costumes for sale in the supermarkets. However, Le Toussaint (All Saints Day) is celebrated on November 1 and is a public holiday. It’s an important family day, dedicated to the memory of relatives passed. It’s a time for visiting graveyards, cleaning up the graves and decorating them with large pots of chrysanthemums or lighted candles. Garden centres, supermarkets and florists do a roaring trade at this time of year, and I’ve even seen stalls set up outside cemeteries selling pots of flowers, always chrysanthemums.
It’s said that in France you should never give chrysanthemums to your hostess at a dinner party, for obvious reasons! Now solely associated with death and mourning, the practice of decorating graves with chrysanthemums is of relatively recent origin. Following the end of the First World War, in 1919 the French president ordered all war memorials to be decorated with flowers. In late Autumn chrysanthemums were the only flowers still blooming and hence the practice developed. Now known as the widow’s flowers, some 25 million pots of chrysanthemums are sold in France every year. I quite like these brightly coloured flowers, but I won’t be growing any in the garden!