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Chrysanthemum & the Fête de la Toussaint

The chrysanthemum has been laid in France's cemeteries since the 19th century. Copyright Wee-Ching Kong As I left the car and walked towards the supermarket entrance doing the usual check for my purse and if I had enough bags, my attention was caught by what looked like fields of vibrant, multi-coloured flowers. Dozens upon dozens of purple, yellow, pink and orange chrysanthemums lined the doors of the shop and people of all ages were buzzing like bees around the pots, carefully picking which ones to take home.

I’ve been living in France for nearly six years now and maybe I’ve been walking around with my eyes shut, but I’ve never noticed this chrysanthemum craze at the end of October before. I continued with my shopping, but couldn’t help but wonder about the reason for it as I walked through the aisles.

Paying up, I summarised that perhaps these flowers are just particularly good at the moment and must be a regional favourite for autumn planting. But – ever curious – I had to stop and ask the lady managing the stall outside on the way back to the car.

“Excuse me madam, why is everyone buying these flowers?” I asked tentatively. “We all have dead relatives,” was her brusque and short reply.

I was confused and feeling more than a little ignorant so hurried back to the car and whipped out my phone to Google. With an ever-reddening face, I discovered that in France – and many other European countries – the chrysanthemum is a symbol of bereavement and loss. So much for a flower of friendship and loyalty as we have it in the UK...

Chrysanthemums are believed to have started appearing on graves in cemeteries across Western Europe in the 19th century, when they replaced candles. The trend grew in the first part of the 20th century, particularly following WWI, and in 1919, French Prime Minister of the time Georges Clémenceau called on the nation to lay blooms on the graves of fallen soldiers.

The chrysanthemum is likely to have been chosen for its resilience and timing. Of Chinese origin, the name reportedly comes from Chu hua, which means October flower. The flower is still held in high esteem in China and, in Japan, it is thought of as a symbol of the sun. The Japanese, who through their name of Nippon historically consider themselves of ‘sun origin’, continue to celebrate the chrysanthemum with a Festival of Happiness.

The chrysanthemum is also a very popular flower in the UK and typically denotes friendship. According to the Victorian language of flowers, a yellow chrysanthemum stands for ‘gently diminishing passionate advances’, red is an invitation or proposition to starting a new relationship, white means truth and honesty, and purple symbolises health and wellness.

The French and many other fellow continental Europeans lay chrysanthemums on the graves of family and friends for All Saints’ Day or La Toussaint, which takes place on 1st November and is a public holiday.

All Saints’ Day has been celebrated in much of Western Europe on 1st November since the 8th century, but its origins are believed to go back to the 4th or 5th centuries, when a day honouring fallen martyrs was celebrated on the Sunday after the Pentecost. 

 

Elsa Carpenter