To me, chrysanthemums or mums are flowers for the dead and certainly nothing one would decorate a home with. So, I was surprised coming to the United States to see them as decorations on porches and in gardens. This perception of mine was born from the French holidays we celebrate in early November: All Saints Day, All Souls’ Day, and now even Halloween.
Confused? Well, so are the French. So let’s set the records straight.
It starts with All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Before the revolution, there were 50 official religious holidays in France. All Saints Day is one of the 4 religious holidays left that warrant an actual day of rest. The others were eradicated from the labor calendar in the process of secularizing the nation. This holiday is deeply rooted in French tradition and is now connected to the first week of vacation time in the school calendar. It also falls at the end of the grape picking and harvest seasons before the quiet of the dark winter.
Under the Roman Empire, persecution of Catholics had been brutal and rampant. All Saints’ day was created by Boniface IV in 610 to honor all martyrs known and unknown who had died for their catholic conviction. Originally, it was celebrated May 13th, day of the consecration of the Pantheon of Rome into a scepulture for the saints. Later, Gregory IV moved the holiday to November 1st , maybe because that is the day that one of St Peter’s chapels had been dedicated to all saints by his predecessor.
So far, nothing seems too confusing about these historical events. Except that November 2nd is All Souls’ Day or Day of the Dead. The tradition of prayers for the dead was initiated by the Benedictine monks of Cluny before it spread to the general population. To honor the dead, it was common to go to mass on November 2nd and also to go to the cemetery to put candles on the family graves. There is also suspicion that the date was somewhat in correlation with the Celtic celebration of Samhain, later to be Hallowed Eve, that we know now as Halloween in the USA.
So what about the mums and the dead thing? What about the confusion?
Well in 1919, the French President Poincarré suggested that the population go and put mums on the graves of the fallen soldiers of WWI. The practice grew into a tradition replacing the candles with mums. Nowadays, millions of mums are sold and moved to cemeteries across the nation, making All Saints’ Day the most profitable holiday for florists and growers.
Why should All Saints’ Day be the most profitable mum holiday when mums are for All Souls’ Day? Why do the French keep associating La Toussaint (All Saints’ Day) with day of the dead? Here is where the confusion comes from: pure logistics. Because All Saints’ Day is a true holiday (meaning a day off from work) people have turned to that day to go to the cemetery, clean the graves, and put flowers on them. It is certainly more convenient that doing all of it after work AND in the dark on November 2nd. In this process the mass for the Dead on November 2nd has died for the most part.
As for Halloween it recently crossed the ocean again to be the holiday that we know in the USA, a fun night for zombies and witches, ghouls and monsters to stuff themselves with candy. All of it wrapped up over three days and dominated by the only flower that can grow in late fall, the chrysanthemum!