Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



The Redeeming Merit Of The French Toussaint Holiday


by Graham Lea





(Swans - November 16, 2009)   To put in context the French national holiday of Toussaint (All Saints' Day) on 1 November, together with the Fête des Morts (All Souls' Day) the next day, we need to look briefly at the pre-Christian history of the Celts in Gaul. A proto-Celtic, polytheistic civilisation began in the early Iron Age, round 1200BC, and continued until about 400AD. Celtic culture spread across Central Europe and Iberia, but today is confined to NW Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany (the so-called six Celtic nations). Most of Gaul was Celtic-speaking. Gallic festivals included Samhain on 1 November, which marked the end of the summer and harvest, and the beginning of the more sombre half of the year, ended by Beltaine on 1 May. (1)

Druids were a priestly class, some of whom indulged in the ritual sacrifice of animals and humans. The latter practice resulted in their suppression by the Romans from 97BC. Little is known about druids since they did not use written records, passing their knowledge to the next generation in verse, which acted as a mnemonic device. Caesar noted that it could take twenty years to learn the verses. Some druids fled to Britain, while others went underground. (2) There is serious speculation that freemasonry descended from druidic practices. (3) Neo-druidism and Celtic revivalism however owe more to the imagination than historical evidence. Celtic polytheism persisted until the 5th century, when Christianity came to dominate, with monks assuming similar roles to druids. It may be conjectured that a significant proportion of druids were psychopaths, as well as those drawn to druidic-like practices today. (4)

There is understandable confusion concerning Toussaint (All Saints' Day, also called All Hallows, the Solemnity of All Saints, and Hallowmas[s]) and the better-known Hallowe'en, which is quite simply the evening before All Hallows (hallow is Middle English for holy). It is not mentioned in the Bible since it was an invention to celebrate those who had been made saints by the pope. Many saints have their days in the church calendar, but there were soon too many for a day each, so an omnibus day was invented.

All Saints was celebrated on 13 May from 609, following the Christianisation of the Pantheon in Rome (now known as Santa Maria dei Martiri) by Pope Boniface IV as a sanctuary dedicated to Mary and all the martyred saints. The Roman festival of Lemuria took place at that time in May, when ghosts were exorcised. In 830, an oratory at St Peter's in the Vatican was used for relics of "the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world." Relics were claimed as either first class (such as body parts of saints); second class (possessions of saints); or third class (something that touched a saint, such as clothing). Pope Gregory III moved All Saints Day to 1 November, in an attempt to suppress the pagan festivities of Samhain that marked the new year.

Toussaint is one of the ten Holy Days of Obligation (there were 36 until they were reduced by Pope Pious X) in the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic Church, when "the faithful are obliged to participate in the mass," according to Canon Law 1247. The French, along with others in countries where Roman Catholicism is dominant, celebrate Toussaint and many have a national holiday for it. In France, it is one of thirteen. In parts of Germany and France, the 31st October is celebrated as the Fête de la reforme, celebrating the birth of Protestantism, since it was on this day in 1517 that the Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was attached to the door of the Church in Wittenberg Castle, thereby marking the start of the Protestant reformation.

Toussaint is quite separate from the la Commémoration des fidèles défunts (faithful departed), or Fête des morts (All Soul's Day), which takes place on the following day, 2nd November. In France (and elsewhere) it is a day to visit graves, to tidy them, and to leave flowers. It is a most attractive sight to behold the masses of chrysanthemums decorating the well-tended graveyards. Candles may be lit at dusk, particularly around the Massif Central, in Brittany, and in the southwest, where Celtic traditions still linger. The pagan belief was that the spirits of the dead stayed in the neighbourhood of the living, in some mysterious way. Outside the grandes villes, most French people are buried rather than cremated. In practice the French often visit the family graves after mass on All Saints' Day, instead of on All Souls' Day, particularly when the grave is in a churchyard rather than at a municipal or private cemetery. There is a great deal of emotion during family visits to the graveyards: sombre dress, much kissing, many tears, and usually a good lunch afterwards.

To the great disappointment of shopkeepers (and Chinese factories making the associated paraphernalia), Halloween is little celebrated in France, and the nuit d'Halloween (hallowed evening, All Hallow's Even) goes unnoticed in our region. Halloween (the apostrophe seems to have disappeared in Hallowe'en, along with its real meaning) is regarded primarily as une fête américaine, something dans la culture anglo-saxonne. It was of course imported to the United States by Irish Roman Catholic immigrants in the 1840s, and commercialised significantly at the end of the 19th century. The modern trick-or-treat threats (a first lesson in bonus negotiation?) arose in the 1930s. They are said to have an origin with Irish Celts who went from village to village begging for soul cakes (bread with currants), and promising to say prayers for the relatives of dead donors. Many believed that the soul remained in limbo after death, but could be given an accelerated passage to heaven by prayer.

Jack o' Lantern was, according to legend, a drunkard who tricked Satan to climb a tree and then trapped him by carving a cross on the trunk. Following his death, Jack was denied entrance to heaven and hell, but Satan gave him an ember to light the way, which he kept in a hollowed-out turnip to keep it glowing longer. Irish immigrants brought the custom of lighting a candle inside a hollowed-out turnip, but with the abundance of pumpkins in America, these were carved to resemble a decapitated head. The purpose of wearing costumes and masks was supposedly to scare off undesired spirits wishing to inhabit the bodies of the living.

In modern times, fear has been manufactured with false rumours that some apples given to children had razor blades embedded, but it turned out that perpetrators of harm were deranged parents. This year, a letter to Salem News discussed "How to make Halloween safe in the age of H1N1." Halloween is in many ways the ugliest event of the year, and certainly the most crass: celebrating the devil can hardly be re-interpreted doctrinally, as happened with Christmas and Easter, which also have pagan origins.

Beliefnet.com, a website that appears to be aimed at floating believers, had a poll one Halloween. Some 42% of respondents stated it was a fun holiday, not taken seriously; 28% said it was a wonderful time to remember the dead (but the site is often visited by Wiccans and neo-pagan surfers); while12% said it should not be celebrated. It can be safely assumed that those who roam such websites are bait for vendors rather than the devil.

In 2008, according to the US National Federation, the average expenditure per person on Halloween was $66.54. There seems to be no limit to the commercialisation, (5) which is increasingly provoking opposition to its celebration. At first this was on religious grounds, but it has also become a protest against rampant consumerism. The prize for the most crass offering this year must surely go to the Hallowmas fighting pen. (6) Encouraging confusion in children between myth and fact does not exactly equip them for survival. Furthermore, the observance of Halloween suggests that the United States is now a post-Christian country.

Thanksgiving has its roots in the murder of the indigenous people of the Americas, and began as a celebration – first in the 16th century in the Spanish colonies in present-day Florida and Texas, and then in the English Virginia and Plymouth colonies in the early 17th century. The ceremonies were at first religious in nature, but have increasingly become gross distortions of early American history. (7) Thanksgiving has become a big commercial festival, a bonanza for the travel industry, for the gift industry, and for businesses producing and selling the food that is (over) eaten. It is also the launch of the Christmas shopping season. Agribusiness and the food processing in factories have removed most romantic notions about Thanksgiving being a harvest festival. Northern Europe is fast emulating American practices, but mercifully in Southern Europe, with the exception of Spain, traditional methods are still widely used. Whilst Halloween gives some early training in extortion to children and has no merit, the American Thanksgiving, aside from its commercialism, does bring together families and friends, peaceably.

Toussaint is part of the patrimoine. It has the redeeming feature that although only a minority of the French appear to be devoted to the saints, many pay great attention to the remembrance of their ancestors. This brings families together, without accompanying commercial pressures. The focus is on happy memories, and not on falsified history.

It is worth recalling that there is also a time for the recognition of heroes, when the guns ceased firing on the western front at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, at the end of the Great War. Alas, it was not the war to end all wars. In France, simply ceremonies take place on Armistice Day in all villes to commemorate those who died or were injured in both world wars.

After the sadness of the Commémoration, there is the bonhomie of the vin d'honneur at the Mairie.


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1.  The Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romain in Lyon has a partially restored calendar from the first century BC, discovered in Coligny (Ain), engraved on a bronze plaque. The Romans smashed it (73 fragments remain), and imposed the Julian calendar.  (back)

2.  Martin Goodman & Jane Sherwood: The Roman world, 44 BC-AD 180. Routledge, 1997; PA Brunt: Roman imperial themes. Oxford University Press, 1990.  (back)

3.  Andrew Prescott: Druidic myths and Freemasonry. Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, University of Sheffield, May 2000 freemasonry.dept.shef.ac.uk  (back)

4.  Bohemian Grove in California, a summer camp for American politicians and businessmen, has druidic-like ceremonies.  (back)

5.  www.neopagan.net is an example.  (back)

6.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkogxB0mROg  (back)

7.  For example, teaching aids about Thanksgiving are often highly inaccurate. See: Caleb Johnson: Debunking a popular internet lesson plan. www.mayflowerhistory.com/Introduction/lessonplandebunk.php  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 16, 2009