After a brief flirtation with Halloween (which they pronounced to rhyme with ‘hen’) the French, who are quick to spot and reject an entirely commercial operation, have returned to the traditional manner of celebrating All Saints and All Souls: the long week end break for la Toussaint. Falling as it does within the school half term, this is a perfect occasion for family members to return to their rural roots to celebrate the annual mass for the dead, and to decorate the family graves.
And for that purpose there is only one possible floral choice – chrysanthemums. It is important to grasp the significance in French culture of these lovely flowers, which should under no circumstances be presented to the hostess of a dinner party, on pain of seeing her faint dead away! We have recently discovered that white busy lizzies and cyclamen have equally funereal connotations, as they are associated with the death of children and infants.
Out of a total of 25 million pots of chrysanthemums sold annually in France, over 22 million are purchased for Toussaint. In the week before the festival flower shops, agricultural merchants, garden centres and markets are awash with carpets of glorious colour. The fashion this year seems to be for multicoloured groupings in the same pot.
It must be quite a trick to get the plants to the peak of perfection for the all-important week end. We know one nursery which tends rows and rows of plants throughout the summer, continualy fussing over them to ensure that the flowers do not open too early or too late.
It seems though that even this apparently innocent trade is regulated by la République. Some years ago when the restaurant in Empurany was at war with the Café-Tabac, they threatened to report their rivals for selling chrysanthemums clandestinely without a licence!