The French tradition of La Toussaint
As Gillian Harvey explains the concept of Bonfire Night to her baffled French neighbours, she realises how much she enjoys the best of both French and English culture
The clocks may be going back and the evenings drawing in, but like many places in France, my little town in Limousin is alive with colour at this time of year.
However, while the UK gets into the full swing of Halloween, the autumn holiday has barely made an inroad into the French consciousness, ‘All Hallows’ or la Toussaint, which falls on 1 November, is an incredibly important tradition this side of the Channel.
Chrysanthemum flowers are purchased and families visit the graves of loved ones; graveyards bustle with life and we are reminded both of people who have gone before, and the potential for immortality – also symbolised by this humble flower, due to its ability to survive the cold weather.
And while it’s quite fun to dress the children up as Frankenstein, witches or ghosts and watch them run around in excitement, I like the fact that rather than focusing on horror and cramming themselves with ill-gotten treats the night before, the French use this public holiday to remember and celebrate their loved ones.
Halloween is not the only British festival that many French people (understandably) just don’t ‘get’. For several years, we’ve trawled the shops for fireworks to have our own mini version of Guy Fawkes Night in the back garden on 5 November, but it was only when we tried to explain to our neighbour the reason why she might hear the whee of a rocket that I realised how bizarre our custom of Bonfire Night must seem.
“We release fireworks to celebrate an attempted bombing by a 17th-century terrorist; then we make an effigy of the perpetrator and burn it on a bonfire,” I smiled, watching her grapple with both my mediocre French and my odd British ways. Needless to say she declined my invitation to join us, probably fearing for her health.
And she was wise to do so: while the French release fireworks on 14 July to mark Bastille Day and sometimes at New Year, it is not common for people to buy their own boxes for home use. Because of this, my children were unfamiliar with sparklers when I bought a packet for the first time last year. Having grown up with distressing annual adverts and school assemblies on sparkler danger, I failed to realise that the risk of being burned by the hot end hadn’t yet touched the consciousness of my little English expats.
To my unprepared daughter, therefore, there was no reason for her not to grab the lit bit when I tried to hand one to her. That night, I learned three things: that (thankfully) a sparkler burn didn’t have to involve a trip to hospital; that petits pois are a must in any mum’s freezer and that five year olds can certainly bear a grudge.
But, despite everything, while I won’t be trick or treating in the town this year, I fully intend to celebrate Halloween, All Saints’ Day and Guy Fawkes Night. Because – whatever its origins – I welcome any festival that can inject a dark winter’s day with laughter and light.
Read more of Gillian Harvey’s columns:
What la rentrée means for parents in France
Why do shops shut in France on Sunday?
The highs and lows of raising British children in France
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