Rather than Halloween with carved pumpkins, bags of candy and kids in festive costumes alongside their taller spirited counterparts, the French wait for the next day, Nov 1 or All Saints Day, to celebrate the falling autumn.
For as much as Halloween is a holiday in France, it is a North American import. The international schools may do a little something to recognize the spooky festivities. American moms may bake pumpkin decorated cupcakes for their child’s school friends. But the Franco-French, the name we give to the ‘Frencher than French’ traditional families, have nothing to do with the day. I might even venture to say that they are marginally anti-Halloween as it represents another way to commercialize children’s entertainment; that and the fact that the Franco-French are largely catholic and Halloween carries a certain dark, sinister side many may wish not to promulgate. Be that as it may, I personally have many happy childhood memories dressed up as Heidi or the front half of a paper-mache (from the French papier-mâché literally meaning chewed paper) dinosaur with my brother for an evening of supervised trick-or-treating. It’s iffy whether my children will ever garner such memories… it’s not a French custom at all. But that won’t leave them empty-handed.
The French are known for their abundant bank holidays. November 1 is one such day. Following the catholic calendar, Toussaint in France is reminiscent of any French Sunday or any Sunday everywhere else in our pre-1960s society. Most every shop is closed. Some bakeries are open only until mid-day to accommodate the requisite holiday petit-dejeuner of croissants and pain au chocolat. Many families have taken the pont (the frequent custom of taking a Friday or Monday off around a holiday to complete a long weekend) to head out of the city. For the rest of us, the brasseries are bustling, in contrast to their habitual mid-morning calm. Regulars are present for their morning cup of joe and their dish of local gossip. Today, though, their faces are complimented by an influx of others you wouldn’t normally see at 10am in a café. My husband and I are two such others.
Seated by the window of our neighborhood brasserie just around the corner from our house on the main place, we order the petit-dejeuner menu: a croissant and a ¼ baguette spread with butter and marmalade and our choice of hot beverage. The French are quite bread-oriented when it comes to breakfast. We could have augmented our first meal of the day with an omelette making it the “complete breakfast” but today we opted for tradition.
By 11 o’clock, as I write this to you, the café where we sit is now packed full of people. A couple with an adorably well-behaved young son sit behind me. The regulars at the counter continue to chat with each other and the bartender; a few elderly couples, a small group of what would be business associates on any other day, and a large cluster of middle-aged friends are laughing and carrying on as if long overdue catching-up has just begun. A loud cheer of salutation erupts as a new member of the group makes his way through the doors.
“Merci Madame, Monsieur, bonne journée,” calls the waiter as the tables empty in turn. The clock in the center square behind me strikes 11:30am. I’ve been lost in my thoughts for a while. We’re left with a half-dozen other tables now. A junior waiter sets each place for lunch as the morning customers make their way home for the mid-day meal.
“Make sure you set each place just after the people leave!” The voice of the patron-ess bellows over the murmur of the remaining clientele. “If you don’t get the place mats down before someone else sits, they’ll just have a coffee and not lunch!” (Another French custom – when the place is set, you are expected to eat not just have a drink.) The boss’ anxiety is exaggerated for no one is, as of yet, lining up to sit down for either lunch or a coffee. The poor junior waiter has ample time to transform his set from café to restaurant before the anticipated rush. The weathered hand of the bartender begins to write the words “Pot au Feu” and “Trio de quiches” on the hanging blackboards announcing the Plat du Jour.
It’ll soon be time for us to head back home too. We’re set to attend a family luncheon ourselves this afternoon.
“Madame, Monsieur bonjour. Pour deux?” A new couple enter and scan the room for a proprietary table as the slightly shrill voice of our patron rings out over the hum of the room.
A family with three children on foot scooters – an ubiquitous appendage in France – pass us by in the window; young couples hand-in-hand cross in the opposite direction; a father with a baguette in one hand, clasping the tiny fist of his daughter in the other stop to peek into a shop window.
Today is Toussaint in France. A day of rest, a family journée to welcome the autumn leaves and cool winds, a day for large family lunches and reuniting with friends over a cup of coffee. There’s a note of seasonal change in the air today, mixed with the unmistakable sense of traditional continuity all wrapped up in one peaceful Thursday.
Happy All Saints Day France.