Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Saints' Day

Le Toussaint, or All Saints' Day, doesn't even figure on most American calendars. I certainly knew little of the tradition before moving to France, where it is important enough to be both a national holiday and a week-long school vacation. It is the pivot point of autumn, when the last warm days of any lingering indian summer are finally given over to a cool, northern European winter gray. "Un temps de Toussaint," they say here: "All Saints' Day weather." This year was no exception, for although the weather was unseasonably warm up until the end of October, as night fell on Halloween I was glad I had finally taken out my winter coat.

All Saints' is one of several Catholic holidays which still figure prominently on the French calendar. The Feast of the Assumption and Ascension Day are both paid holidays, and Pentecost Monday was only recently dropped as a result of social reforms. These holidays have largely lost their meaning to most, and I suspect the average Frenchman couldn't tell you whether Ascension comes in May or August. All Saints' is different, because even if its strictly religious meaning has been somewhat blurred (and combined with All Souls' Day which falls the day after), it is still an important part of French tradition. It is still, quite simply, the day when families gather together to remember the dead.

It is fitting, and doubtlessly not by accident, that this occasion falls just beyond the official end of summer. The season is by nature about renouncement and endings. Most French remember being led to the cemetery as a child, often through the rain; they remember solemn adults telling stories about people whose names were to them only letters carved in stone. These aren't happy memories, but they aren't unhappy, either, just part of the normal rhythm of the year. One never makes the mistake of bringing chrysanthemums as a gift, however. The flower is too closely associated with gravesites decorated for Toussaint.

Although All Saints' fell on a Wednesday this year, we decided to make the trip out to Troyes for Tuesday night and the following day to keep the tradition with my husbands' aunt. The rest of the family was out of town, taking advantage of a last week of vacation before the holidays. The day was sunny and crisp, "un temps de Toussaint" but just barely, not yet cold enough for frost.

I usually find French cemeteries uncommonly depressing. There isn't any grass, as there is in American cemeteries, just gravel walkways behind high stone walls. Massive stone tombs are much more common than headstones, and most are covered with sad collections of plaques and porcelain flowers. The oldest graves have rusting and deteriorating ironwork which give a rather uncertain notion of eternity. Worse, the city hall often posts small signs in front of plots considered abandoned, waiting for relatives to come forward before the gravesite is reallotted.

Troyes' cemetery is no different, objectively, but I only see it at Toussaint, when it is covered in fresh flowers and looks almost cheerful. Chrysanthemums are the only flowers, and they paint the typical gray in a patchwork of orange, yellow, red and violet. It feels as if for one day the living have remembered to come and scatter a bit of their life upon the forgotten.

My husband's aunt comes faithfully to the cemetery all year to water the flowers she plants on her parents' and grandparents' graves. She does not enjoy coming, but is moved by a sense of duty to memory that is noble, old-fashioned, and recently uncommon. I come only once a year, but to come that often feels important to me. We stand together in front of the graves and she tells me of people I never knew, but to whom I am linked, and to whom I am grateful.

Like many Americans, my family memories are scattered across continents. In three generations we moved from Michigan and Indiana to Seattle and Paris. There is no place I can return to to remember where I came from, so I carry it with me. I feel as though that makes memory that much harder.

I'm reminded, however, how much it is worth.

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