La Toussaint

All Saints Day in France

Map of Country

Fig. 1 - Modern day France and its neighboors.



  All Saints Day is a Roman Catholic holiday celebrated on November 1. It is a day of remembrance of all the saints and martyrs of Christianity as well as dead relatives and also a day of celebration of the victory over death won by Christ. It is observed in France with a variety of rituals and practices. In the traditionally Catholic France , All Saints Day is a way for the French to maintain a piece of their national identity, which they feel is being eroded by globalization.


Additional Image 1   Additional Image 2

Fig. 2 - St. Joan of Arc, the peasant girl called by God to save France. She later became patron saint of France. She led the French Army in the Hundred Years' War.

(Image courtesty of St. Joan of Arc Books.

Fig. 3 Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and the first Holy Roman Emperor, from a stained glass window in Strasbourg Cathedral. He was intrumental in the fostering of Christianity in Western Europe.

(Image courtesy of the University of the Poor.


  Christianity has been a dominant influence in Western history and culture. France has been one of the great bastions of Christianity throughout history. It was at Tours, France, that Charles Martel and the French Army stopped the Moorish expansion and effectively saved Christianity in Europe (Koeller, 2001). Its cities have some of the most beautiful and impressive churches and cathedrals in Europe . As with many other nations and cultures, religion in France is becoming less central to French society. While the celebration of many religious holidays has decreased in an ever globalizing and more secular world, All Saints Day is still widely observed by many French as an important festival. Jusdanis (1995) suggests that globalization and the decreased importance of the nation-state is leading to the disappearance of distinct national identity (Jusdanis 1995). In a country that is very concerned with preserving its culture, the celebration of All Saints Day is a way for the French to maintain a unique part of their national identity. All Saints Day provides a leveling mechanism in French society, the communication of the sacra , the encouragement of ludic recombination, and the fostering of communitas which all present the opportunity to keep the celebration alive in French culture. This is important to maintaining a national identity because it has been a part of French tradition since the Fifth Century AD.


Context of France

  France is located in Western Europe, and borders Belgium and Luxembourg to the north, Germany , Switzerland and Italy to the east, and Spain , Monaco , and Andorra to the south. With a landmass of 545,630 square kilometers, it is one of the largest countries in Europe . It also has over 3,000 kilometers of coastline, bordering the Bas of Biscay, the English Channel, and the Mediterranean Sea (CIA World Factbook, 2004).

  The French countryside, often noted for its beauty, consists mostly of rolling plains and hills. The greatest geographical variations are the Pyrenees Mountains on the Spanish border in the south and the high Alps bordering Switzerland and Italy . The climate is generally common for Western Europe . France has warm summers and mildly cool winters, along the Cote D'Azure , or French Rivera however, summers are hot and winters are warmer (CIA World Factbook 2004).

  Ancient France , known as Gaul to the Romans, was inhabited by Celtic tribes. By the mid-first century, the area was ruled by the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties. During this time, France became a largely Christian nation. In 732 AD, Charles Martel defeated the Moors at the Battle of Tours, a pivotal point in European history as it stopped the Moorish expansion in Europe (Koeller 2001). Charles Martel's grandson Charlemagne became king and founded the Frankish Empire. This is where France got its name. During the Middle Ages, England owned large parts of France . During a conflict known as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), the French Armies were led by a peasant girl turned military hero named St. Joan of Arc (Hundred Years War 2001). France was ruled by kings until the 1790s when the people of France revolted and founded a republic. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, an army officer, took control of the government and founded the Empire of the French. Following Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, France went through a period of republics and new empires until after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, when the Third Republic was formed. France was invaded by Germany in both the First (1914-1918) and Second (1939-1945), but aided in Germany 's final defeat and was a victor in both conflicts. After this the Fourth Republic was declared, then in 1958 the Fifth Republic with a revised constitution, which is the present day French government ( France 's History 2002).


Origins of All Saints Day

  The Roman Catholic holiday All Saints Day, Festum omnium sanctorum in Latin, is celebrated on November 1. The earliest celebration of this festival was around 400 AD to honor the many Christian martyrs. Individual saints have feast days, each with its own set of rituals and practices (Gudeman 1975). The origins of the modern holiday of All Saints Day can be traced to Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, who established November 1 as a day of prayer for “the 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.” All Saints Day was observed throughout Christianity during the time of Charlemagne. Its observance was made obligatory in Christendom by Pope Gregory IV in 873 AD. It was then that the date of the festival was cemented into the Catholic calendar (All Saints' Day 2001).



  While religion has become less important to the daily life of the French, along with many other cultures, All Saints Day is still widely observed. In France , La Toussaint as it is called locally is both a Church and public holiday. The Catholic Church has an established octave, or week of observance. In the week leading up to All Saints Day, churches in France are adorned with various flowers, candles and banners (Nehring 2003). There is also a recognized vigil for the holiday, All Hallow's Eve or Halloween, though the religious observance of this vigil is different from the version celebrated in America .

  In the French province of Brittany , the octave of La Toussaint is regularly observed by many people visiting cemeteries. They clean and pour milk on relative's graves, and lay wreaths of flowers, most often chrysanthemums on the graves (see Fig. 4). This ritualistic presentation of flowers is seen as an indication of triumph over death and eternal life in Heaven with Christ. Many times there are family reunions that follow the rituals of the day, a way of honoring the dead and reaffirming family ties (Nehring 2003).



Fig. 4 - The ritual laying of a chyrsanthemum wreath at a loved ones gravesite as a common practice on All-Saints Day. The bright yellow chyrsanthemum represents the vigor of the loved one in life and their joyful eternal life in Paradise. All Souls Day by William-Adolphe Bougereau, 1859 (Image courtesy of Illusion Gallery,




Prognosis for All Saints Day

  While All Saints Day is still widely celebrated in France , it appears to be decreasingly important. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center (2002) only eleven percent of French adults feel that religion is important (Pew Research Center 2002). As globalization increases, many nations, including France , are becoming more secular on a whole. As the number of practicing Christians in France decreases, so will the festivities and celebrations associated with All Saints Day.



  The celebration of All Saints Day has been a part of Christianity since the eighth century. It was important in the Roman Catholic stronghold of France . The practices of All Saints Day serve several purposes. The communication of the sacra and ludic recombination of the festivities helps to convey the message that while death is a painful reality, it leads to the joy of eternal life. The idea that death is inevitable for all is acts as a leveling mechanism. Communitas is also fostered during the celebration. Bahannan (1973) says that culture “is coded twice – once within the human being, in electrical and chemical form and once outside the human being in some other for” (Bahannan 1973). Ascribing to this theory, it is possible that even though society as a whole may be phasing out the celebration, individuals can keep the celebration alive. The observance of All Saints Day in France is a way for the French to maintain a piece of their national identity which they feel is being lost to globalization. France 's strong Christian ties throughout history make All Saints Day an important part of French culture. Even so, it appears that religion is becoming less important in France and across the world, and slowly the observance of All Saints Day is decreasing.


Internet References Cited

  • Koeller, David. 2001. Battle of Tours . Electronic document., accessed Septemper 15, 2004.

  • Embassy of France in the U.S. 2002. France 's History. Electronic document., accessed September 14, 2004.

  • Pew Research Center. 2002. The Importance Given to Religion Worldwide. Electronic document., accessed November 16, 2004.

  • Human Rights Without Frontiers International. 2003. International Religious Freedom Report 2003. Electronic document,, accessed October 10, 2004. 

  • Nehring, the Rev. Dr. Arlene K. 2003. Communion Mediation on All Saints Day. Sermon given at Eden United Church of Christ, November 2, 2003. Electronic document., accessed September 18, 2004.

  • Betkowski, Bev. 2004. Religion's place in society explored at conference. Electronic document,, accessed October 15, 2004.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    The Catholic Encyclopedia, volume I.

       1907a. All Saints Day. Electronic document., accessed September 14, 2004.

        1907b. Octave. Electronic document,, accessed September 14, 2004.


    Bahannan, Paul.

      1973. Rethinking Culture: A Project for Current Anthropologists. Current     Anthropology 14(4): 357-372.


    Gudeman, Stephen.

        1975. Saints, Symbols, and Ceremonies. American Ethnologist 3(4): 709-729.

    Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner

        1982. Religious Celebrations. In Celebration: Studies in Fesitivity and Ritual. Victor Turner, ed, pp. 201-219. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. 

    Jusdanis, Gregory.

       1995. Beyond National Culture? Boundary 2 22(1): 23-60.


    Erickson, Bonnie H.

        1996. Culture, Class, and Connections. American Journal of Sociology 102(1): 217-251.


    CIA World Factbook

        2004. France , Electronic document., accessed September 14,   2004.


    Columbia Encyclopedia, 6 th ed.

        2001a. Hundred Years War. Electronic document, bin/texis/webinator/65search?search_type=full&query=Hundred+Years+War&submit=Go, accessed September 15, 2004.

        2001b. All Saints' Day. Electronic document,, accessed September 14, 2004.


Contact Jim Aimers | ©2004 Miami University