For a fortnight or so before 1st November (Toussaint; All Saints’ Day) pavements outside French florists’ shops and undertakers, and whole marquees at supermarkets, are heaving with chrysanthemums in pots. But don’t be tempted to offer a pot as a gift; you’ll likely sour a budding friendship. Why? The chrysanthemum is the flower of the dead in France.
It took me a long time to work this out. Thankfully, I didn’t commit a faux pas during that time. The penny began to drop when I saw tombs in local cemeteries adorned with pots of these flowers. It’s estimated that over 25 million pots of chrysanths are sold every year.
Toussaint is a public holiday. Along with the following day, it’s when families gather to visit the graves of their departed forebears to tidy them and decorate them with pots of flowers. The festival itself is thought to have been initiated in the 5th century in Rome, to move bones into the catacombs, but it was only early in the 20th century that the Pope included Toussaint in the calendar of holy days.
Why chrysanthemums? After World War I, this tradition replaced an earlier custom to place lighted candles on the tombstones (not very practical during the kind of weather one normally gets at Toussaint). The first celebration of the Armistice took place on 11th November 1919. President Poincaré decreed that all graves in France should be decorated with flowers to honour the war dead. Since few flowers are in bloom during November, the still-flowering chrysanthemum became the flower of choice. The tradition spread from Armistice Day to Toussaint as well.
You may remember that the SF (husband) and I belong to an association that aims to restore the chapel of Teysseroles, in the former parish of which our house is situated. Every year in late October, we gather to tidy the churchyard and prepare it for Toussaint. It’s usually necessary to do it again a couple of months later – to remove the skeletal remains of the chrysanthemums and pick up the plastic pots that the wind has scattered around the cemetery. However, at least the dead get their due once a year.
So think twice before you offer a pot, or even a bouquet, of chrysanthemums to French people.
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