All Saints’ Day or Fete de la Toussaint

All Saints’ Day or Fete de la Toussaint is one of the most important holidays in France and overshadows Halloween (something that only in the last 20 years has been celebrated). La Toussaint falls in autumn on 1 November and is a Catholic holy day. It is a day when Frenchmen pay their respects and honor their deceased relatives by cleaning and decorating their graves and tombs. The celebration of La Toussaint, which is a contraction of Tous les Saints, was for a long time celebrated after Easter or after Pentecost. However, a decree by Louis the Pious forced Pope Gregory IV to declare that the celebration was to occur on 1 November.

All Saints' Day

“All Saints’ Day” by Fra Angelico, also called “All Hallows Day, Solemnity/Feast of All Saints.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To celebrate All Saints’ Day, the custom in France is to decorate tombs and graves of love ones with flowers, particularly chrysanthemum wreaths called “couronnes de toussaints.” The chrysanthemum has long been considered a widow’s flower and is never given as a gift in France because of its close association with All Saints’ Day. Moreover, the tradition of using chrysanthemums to decorate graves supposedly started in 1919 when the President, Raymond Poincaré, declared that all war memorials should have floral tributes.

Prior to the French Revolution, celebrations of All Saints’ Day were held in rural areas at village churches or in fields. Celebrations usually involved festivals, fairs, and dances. Dancing often included a dance called the farandole, which is a dance that bears similarities to the gavotte, jig, and tarantella and involves an open-chain where dancers hold hands and skip at every beat.

One major faux pas that Marie Antoinette made was related to All Saints’ Day. She became interested in gambling and was particularly interested in playing cards. One card game named Faro had been forbidden, but the Queen was able to talk her husband into allowing her to play it. He brought bankers from Paris to help with the game and told her that she could play for one evening. She did, thirty-six hours straight. The morning she quit playing was All Saints’ Day, which made an unfortunate impression on the public and resulted in Louis XVI chiding her.

“The queen evaded the king’s remonstrances by a jest, saying that as he had given permission for them to have a party of play, without determining the length of it, they had therefore the right to prolong it through thirty-six hours. The king laughed, and replied gayly [sic], ‘Go to; you’re no good, none of you.”[1]

All Saints' Day - Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette. Author’s collection.

Once the French Revolution occurred, religious celebrations were discouraged, and public sentiment did not bode well for the clergy. For instance, the same year that the Bastille was stormed and the French Revolution began, there were maneuvers to force a vote in favor of confiscating clerical property:

“Throughout All-Saints’ Day (November 1, 1789) drums were beaten to call together the band known here as the Coadjutors of the Revolution. On the morning of November 2, when the deputies resorted to the Assembly, they found the cathedral square all the avenues to the archbishop’s palace, where the sessions were held, filled with an innumerable crowd of people. This army was composed of from 20,000 to 25, 000 men, of which the greater number had no shoes or stockings; woollen caps and rags formed their uniform and they had clubs for guns. They overwhelmed the ecclesiastical deputies with insults, as they passed on their way, and vociferated that they would massacre without mercy all who would not vote for stripping the clergy. … Near 300 deputies who were opposed to the motion did not dare attend the Assembly. … The rush of ruffians in the vicinity of the hall, their comments and threats, excited fears of this atrocious project being carried out. All who did not feel courageous enough to immolate themselves, avoided going to the Assembly [and] the decree was adopted.”[2]

Before long there were no more Sunday or religious feast days. Instead, celebrations such as the Festival of Reason (Fete de la Raison) and the Festival of the Supreme Being (Fete de l’Être suprême) supplanted them. These celebrations were held in Paris and celebrated such things as agriculture, marriage, or republicanism rather than religion, a religious saint, or a religious day of remembrance. However, after the Concordat of 1801 there was a reconciliation between revolutionaries and the Catholics, and some people began to celebrate the holiday again.

One of the most popular cemeteries to visit when celebrating All Saints’ Day was Père Lachaise Cemetery. The cemetery received its name from Louis XIV’s confessor, a French Jesuit priest named Père François de la Chaise, and because the land was attached to his name, that was the name Napoleon decided to give it when he created the cemetery. They cemetery is also the resting place of many famous people, including Eugène Delacroix, Jacques-Louis David, Georges Bizet, Frédéric Chopin, and Peter Abelard and Héloïse.

View of Paris from Père Lachaise Cemetery. Author’s Collection.


  • [1] Rocheterie, Maxime de La, The Life of Marie Antoinette, Volume 1, 1893, p. 146.
  • [2] Taine, Hippolyte, The French Revolution, Volume 2, 1892, p. 44.

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