All Saints’ holidays are the first two weeks of break given to French schoolchildren after the start of the school year. Still nostalgic of summer, but already immersed in the atmosphere of autumn, the shimmering colours of which brighten up the parks and gardens, families traditionally get together to experience a moment of remembrance at the time of the Feast of the Dead. On this occasion, the traditions are not so numerous and yet, All Saints’ Day is an essential step in the year for French families. Let’s see what are the customs and the gastronomic, cultural and tourist curiosities to discover during a language stay in France on All Saints’ Day.
A French stay on All Saints’ Day holidays: the traditions
From the Feast of the Saints to the Feast of the Dead
All Saints’ Day is a Catholic feast celebrated on November 1 in France in honour of God and all the saints. The French associate it – out of confusion and convenience of usage – with the Feast of the Dead which takes place the next day. However, only All Saints’ Day is a public holiday: it is this day that families choose to meditate and flower the graves. In a way, we are witnessing “chiaroscuro” celebrations: we go from light to shade, from the Feast of All Saints to the Feast of All the Dead!
All Saints’ Day: a cultural celebration more than a religious one
We must warn foreign visitors, the cult of the dead in France is much prosaic and more reserved than in some countries, such as Mexico for example, where spectacular celebrations are traditionally held.
The tradition of All Saints’ Day in France is that people go to the cemetery to pay homage to deceased loved ones and place flowers and candles on the graves, symbols of a happy life in the hereafter.
Chrysanthemums, even Marigolds, have the advantage over all other flowers, because they are the ones that resist the cold and humidity of autumn the best…
Who knows, perhaps global warming will modify these uses… During a stay in France for All Saints’ Day, you will be able to see to what extent the French are faithful to this ritual, not missing the appointment with their loved ones, beyond any religious conviction.
The “potato holidays”
Historical anecdote: All Saints’ Day formerly coincided with the potato harvest. At that time, the whole family worked in the fields, and the children had to miss school! This is how the “potato holidays” were introduced. Nowadays, the expression still persists in certain French-speaking regions of Switzerland, for example, but it has been generally renamed “All Saints holidays”. So, dear students, ready for a “potato vacation” in France?
A French stay in November: gastronomy
Culinary rituals for All Saints’ Day are rare
In France, as in other (Catholic) countries around the world, All Saints’ Day constitutes a moment of remembrance and gathering with family and ancestors, without fatal or nostalgic aspects. Gastronomy has its place at the heart of “celebrations”.
Against all expectations, France – despite being a gourmet – does not maintain proper culinary traditions for this occasion. While in other countries, the “meal of the dead” is a family feast to symbolically share the meal with their dead, there are very few All Saints recipes.
A few rare regional traditions persist in a very localized manner. For example, the pâté de poires de Fisée is a puff pastry cake with autumn scents (pears, sugar, cloves, wine and vanilla bean) which is eaten on All Saints’ Day in the Pays de Bray in the north-west of France.
Or niflettes, a pastry originating from the town of Provins, in Seine-et-Marne, a traditional All Saints’ Day tart close to Portuguese Pasteis de Nata.
Good products of Autumn
So if our students and foreign travellers come to stay in France on All Saints ‘Day, what should they expect at their hosts’ tables? As the air cools and winter draws closer, the All Saints’ Day holidays are an opportunity to start a cure of restorative good things to prepare for hibernation!
Comforting recipes based on forest products and the first winter vegetables arrive on the plates: mushrooms, chestnuts are roasted while the pumpkin, Halloween star, is transformed into soup and as an accompaniment to roasted chickens! We prepare quince paste, we taste the pear in all its forms and we finish with a Périgord walnut cake for dessert!
Which destination to choose to travel in France in November ?
It’s hard to choose where to stay in France for All Saints’ Day, there are so many choices! Granted, cemeteries are not necessarily the first sites to visit that come to mind. However, France holds immense and particularly surprising famous cemeteries, as famous as the personalities they shelter. So let’s go for a brief overview of the curious cemeteries of France, which may, who knows, make you lean towards an Autumn holiday destination…
Visit Paris and Père Lachaise
Direction Paris 20th district and Père Lachaise, where the visitors enter a maze of 70,000 concessions, “to meet” Molière, Balzac, La Fontaine, Apollinaire, Oscar Wilde for literary artists, Chopin, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison… for musicians… It is an opportunity to dive into both the history and culture of France by retracing the biographies and successes of each of these French and international personalities. A true open-air museum not to be missed during your language stay in Paris!
Visit Paris, and the Van Gogh cemetery
About thirty kilometres from Paris, we reach Auvers-sur-Oise. In this green hamlet, we follow a pilgrimage in homage to Van Gogh, where the Dutch painter produced 70 paintings, inspired by local architecture in particular, and spent the last days of his life there close to his brother. The cemetery of Auvers-Sur-Oise is one that can be visited just for one name. Here, we find the two symmetrical, moving stelae of Theodore and Vincent Van Gogh.
Visit Normandy and the American cemetery
The VAL agency offers cultural stays in Normandy : on All Saints’ Day, there is the opportunity to walk along the landing beaches and to visit the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer (“Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial”), overlooking Omaha Beach. It brings together the graves of American soldiers fallen in combat, most of them on D-day on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944. Moving, impressive (70 ha in area), it commands respect and recognition by its immensity and sobriety. It is another crucial step to discuss a phase of world history with students and foreign visitors.
Visit Provence and the cemeteries of Sète
The southern destinations are appropriate to stay in France on All Saints’ Day for those who fear the humidity of October! The Côte d’Azur warms up and Provence is just as welcoming and conceals mortuary curiosities that are just as surprising! If you opt for a language travel to Nice, why not take a detour to Sète, where two poets rest, two virtuosos of the French language in different styles: Paul Valéry and George Brassens. In a peaceful setting of pines, cypresses and a sea horizon, the Saint-Charles de Sète cemetery has been renamed “Marine cemetery” in reference to the poem by Paul Valéry, whose tomb is the star of this place. In the more popular Py cemetery, the songwriter George Brassens rests under a cypress.
Ce toit tranquille, où marchent des colombes,
Entre les pins palpite, entre les tombes ;
Midi le juste y compose de feux
La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée !
Ô récompense après une pensée
Qu’un long regard sur le calme des dieux !
Paul Valéry, le cimetière marin, 1920.
The stay in France on All Saints’ Day ends with this poem by Paul Valéry, and many inspirations for an upcoming fall trip to France!