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May 1 2013
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The magnificent eeriness envelops me as I walk up musty steps to the cemetery, and the light changes.
Everywhere, there is darkness, except for the flickers of candlelight that glow from within little houses of the dead. I can tell they’re home because they’ve got their lights on. A rainy evening makes the air damp but doesn’t put out those flames. There are a million flowers all over, as though this were a garden, but with no roots growing in the ground. The persistent “euuuh” sound echoes through cobblestone passageways—it’s just the hum of the French in between thoughts—but it sounds like the hymn of phantoms.
Night falls, and I lose my way. I can’t find the dead I’m looking for. I stumble upon Frédéric Chopin, whose grave is gilded with a shrine of candles, flowers, and written notes. His music is playing inside my head, and everything swells—the dark, the flickering, all the people staring at his tombstone, so still as if they are dead themselves—and then this imaginary concerto is interrupted. A bell tolls and sends a shiver down my spine. A remote voice calls out, “Le cimetiere est ferme!” The cemetery is closed!
It would have been the best Halloween. I wasn’t in costume, but I definitely wasn’t myself. For a treat, if not a trick, I walked among the dead at Le cimetiere du Pere Lachaise in Paris. But it was not Halloween, it was La Toussaint: All Saints’ Day.
God was there, a spirit that doesn’t haunt our American holiday. I saw Jesus’s eyes poking out through the sepulcher window. I saw stone crosses blend into an ominous sky, as though the crucifixes had been set down on top of each tombstone from above.
This is supposed to be a religious experience. Following a tradition of honoring all saints together on the first Sunday after the Pentecost, All Saints’ Day is rooted in the early fourth-century Catholic commemoration of “all the martyrs.” Pope Boniface IV buried 28 wagon-loads of bones beneath the Roman Pantheon in the early seventh century in order to ensure worship of all the saints collectively. Though dated in May, this feast of the “dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Martyres” became the precursor to the autumn celebration.
A century later, in the mid 700s, Pope St. Gregory III dedicated a chapel to all saints in the Basilica of St. Peter, marking the day of the feast on Nov. 1. About a century after that, Pope Gregory IV formally established this date by extending the holiday to the entire Church. The celebration rose to prominence later in the ninth century, when the departed wife of Byzantine Emperor Leo VI was memorialized in a church named for All Saints’ Day.
In France, the holiday was made a day of obligation during the reign of Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious of the Frankish Empire. Today, it remains a preeminent celebration in the country. Children were given vacation from school from Oct. 23 to Nov. 5 this year. In the days ahead of La Toussaint, flower shops and grocery stores stocked up on flowers, which the French bring en masse to honor the dead—especially at Pere Lachaise.
These flowers, delicate and organic, looked different in the storefronts of Paris than the “Slutty Sailor” costumes I passed by in Ricky’s on Broadway and 114th Street before I made the trip. Yet when my friends, Martine and Patrick Guillon, picked me up at the airport, they explained to me that La Toussaint is not entirely unlike American Halloween in that “c’est bon pour l’economie.” It’s good for the economy.
Those days off from school are spent shopping, said Martine, who recently retired from decades as a teacher. Zoe Morrison, a junior at Harvard studying abroad in Paris, said, “I think it’s just another school holiday.” Morrison noted that La Toussaint has always been important in France, but now, like any holiday, it matters to the religious and not to others.
Meanwhile, Halloween barely seeps into French culture. Nobody stocks up on candy in anticipation of trick-or-treaters. No such trick-or-treaters walk the streets that night. But on Oct. 30, I found myself at a costume shop on Rue du Temple and Rue de Rivoli, where the line had extended so far that the storekeeper—who stood in the doorway, smoking a cigarette, of course—sent one of his employees to hand out des bonbons to patient customers. My friends and I refused to participate in this desperate exercise in commercialism—how American. We were in Paris, for Christ’s sake.
The All Saints’ vigil hearkens in faith, “Be our light in the darkness, God we pray, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.” So it was on Nov. 1, the day after Halloween, when all the spooks and spirits were out in the cemetery, and I walked among them. A different kind of haunting than what I’m used to at home. But I never felt so alive. I guess it was a matter of contrast.
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