Every year, leading up to the 1st of November, you will see florists and markets everywhere stocking up with chrysanthemums. In France as well as other countries in Europe – Spain, Italy, Poland etc, this flower symbolises death and is placed in cemeteries on ‘La Toussaint’ – ‘All Saints’ Day’ – the day people remember their loved ones and bring flowers to their graves.
The day of ‘La Toussiant’ in the Western Christian world dates from the 7th century BC in Rome under Pope Boniface IV, and from the 9th century BC for the rest of Europe. On a quick peek on the internet, it seems that other countries also take flowers to their deceased on this day: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Chile, Hungary, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, as well as some cities in the US.
I’ll always remember the first year I arrived in France, walking through the cemetery of Lagrasse, by chance, just after the 1st of November. I was in awe, it was the most beautiful spectacle of colours and flowers. ‘They really look after their dead loved ones here,’ I said to Benjamin. He laughed and explained the tradtion of ‘La Toussaint’ to me. From then on I’ve always made sure to have a wander inside the cemetries at this time of year to take in the beauty and have a think. I don’t do it often, but going in and having a quiet walk around, reading the various names and looking at the faces of those few whose families have left a photograph gives me time to reflect and be grateful for being around. Corny, I know – but it puts things back into perspective and I feel even more happy to be around walking the earth instead of under it.
Lilas and I went for a walk in our village’s cemetery this week:
Morbid I may be, but I loved this cross. The grapes, the wheat, it seems so rustic and perfect for a rural cemetery whose village is devoted to winemaking. I was probably wrong with the symbols however! – the blog ‘Graveyard Addiction’ (sounds very ‘Harold and Maude’ ) attributes the grapes as the blood of Christ and the wheat as a symbol of harvest (thanks G.A.!).
I spied Lilas with a pile of flowers in her hand – ‘No, you can’t take the flowers!’ I said. ‘Mummy, I’m picking the ones off the ground and giving them to ones that don’t have them,’ she explained.
I’ve just remembered that I used to give Mum chrysanthemums on Mother’s Day! – how funny to think of the twist from this Australian tradition to the French one… People keep saying the Aussies are topsy-turvy.
And your Tip For When In France: never present chrysanthemums to the host at a dinner party, or on your first date.