Today is a national holiday all across France. Most brasseries, cafes, boulangeries, public offices, monuments, grocery stores are all closed. Our church is closed all day (which has been kind of nice!). In fact, for the last two weeks the entire school system has been on their “Toussiant” holiday break, and many French families travel across the country to visit relatives and loved ones.
What is “Toussiant” and why it is so influential?
“toussaint” is the French phrase for “All Saint’s” and is celebrated as All Saints Day. It is a deeply historic religious festival celebrated on the of 1st November each year in France. In other traditions and customs it is also known as “All Hallows” Day, with the preceding evening called “All Hallows Eve” (a.k.a Halloween by Americans). This tradition has been honored and held in high esteem here in France since around 609 (long before America was discovered).
The feast of All Saints, on its current date of November 1, is traced to the foundation by Pope Gregory III (731–741) of an oratory in St. Peter’s 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”. (taken from Wikipedia)
It is the day when all the Saints recognized by the Roman Catholic church are honored. The following day is Le Jour des Morts (All Soul’s Day), when people pray for the souls of the departed. Both days are national holidays and, as previously mentioned children have a two-week holiday from school at this time of the year.
Today, La Toussaint is marked by the lighting of numerous candles in cemeteries and the decorating of graves with chrysanthemums, the flowers associated with death. Stone lanterns of the dead, which are lit during the festival, can also be found in many cemeteries, especially in the Massif Central region in central France, and in Brittany. Family reunions are held to honor the dead, church bells are rung, and churches are decorated with chrysanthemums, candles and banners.
On the eve of Le Jour des Morts churches are draped in black, funeral songs are sung and prayers for the dead are recited. People visit cemeteries to pray at their family graves, and then there are festivities involving singing and telling stories about their deceased relatives.
This day becomes a day of honoring and remembering loves ones and Christians who have gone before us. This “great cloud of witnesses”, as the author of Hebrews states, can and should serve as examples of inspiration and perseverance. It can serve us well to acknowledge these men and women of God and pay tribute to their lives and legacies.
Many Americans, like myself, still visit the graves of loved ones on special occasions (birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries), and this Toussiant holiday brings it all together with national pride and solidarity.
Of course, most French are Roman Catholic in background and practicing faith and their view of “saints” may alter from traditional Protestant ideology. While Protestants may honor the memory of the deceased, often we do not offer prayers to them.
I will include one thought on this matter that I am still working out. Since living in France and befriending many wonderful Catholic brothers and sisters, I have learned to appreciate their traditions more. One friend recently told me “We believe that Jesus is the only mediator to God, but there are many intercessors.” I thought about this for a while and realized the importance of intercessory prayer from friends and family. Often I have called upon someone (over the phone and not actually “in person”) and asked them to specifically pray for me or for something. I believe prayer works and that “the prayer of the righteous is both powerful and effective”. (James 5:16)
I ask these brothers and sisters in Christ to pray, believing in the spiritual connection we share. Does this connection end upon physical death? If the “saint”, as the apostle Paul indicates, leaves this earth to be with Christ, are they not in fact in a better position to advocate and intercede for us? Just a thought……
Well in the light of my “enlightenment” of French tradition and keeping in context, our youth group’s “All Hallows Eve” party still had a few resemblances to the traditional American holiday (we even watched “The Great Pumpkin” featuring none other than Charlie Brown). However, in keeping to the true spirit and history of this day, we ended our time together paying tribute to those “saints” who let their light shine in the darkness long before us. Many individuals were mentioned: Old Testament heroes, the Apostles from the New Testament, the early church fathers and desert fathers, “saints” from the early century Churches, Protestant Reformers, and personal examples such as grandparents and other relatives. These people are, and should be, included in the “cloud of witnesses” that serve as an example to believers now.
….to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. – Romans 1:7
Each student was given a candle that represented the light of Christ and also symbolized a “saint”. After a few minutes of prayerful silence and meditation, each student lit his or her candle and placed it on the stairs in our catacombs. At first, one small light did not make much of an impact, but before long the entire place became illuminated with these symbols of hope, faith, and love. Students were encouraged to remember and reflect upon loved ones who have been examples of faith to them. A short well-known chorus became a fitting anthem: “This Little Light of Mine”
I will conclude with a wonderful quote about the inspiration and example of “saints” and (what I now believe) the blessing in setting aside time to honor them.
“ … In addition to the sun, which is the image of Christ, there is the moon, which has no light of its own but shines with a brightness that comes from the sun. This is a sign to us that we men are in constant need of a “little” light, whose hidden light helps us to know and love the light of the Creator, God one and triune. … One might say that the saints are, so to speak, new Christian constellations, in which the richness of God’s goodness is reflected. Their light, coming from God, enables us to know better the interior richness of God’s great light, which we cannot comprehend in the refulgence of its glory.” – Pope Benedict XVI, as quoted in “Benedictus”:
For some additional Biblical references to “saints” here are just a few helpful verses:
*Matthew 27:50-53; Revelation 8; Philippians 4:22; Philippians 1:1