“What is a proper gift to bring your French host when you’ve been invited for dinner?” I asked.
She replied with her usual flair, along with a personal story from her early days in France…
I’d dreamed of living in the South of France from an early age. (My family home was in northernmost Quebec – need I say more?) Whenever we made a trip into town, ice and snow permitting, I’d buy magazines full of chic French fashion, luxurious apartments, glorious food, and stylish entertaining. I liked to experiment with French cooking but let’s face it, with a moose as our closest neighbor the scope for social life and entertaining was, well, limited. My mind was made up.
Mid-October several years later I finally arrived in southern France. It was bliss to be enveloped by warm sunshine. My first home was a charming, albeit minuscule, ‘chambre de bonne’, a former maid’s quarters, in a historic building.
France was a ‘coup de coeur’. I loved exploring the streets, window shopping, and admiring the architecture. After a landscape of snow and pine trees, France was a colorful wonderland. In fact, the huge variety of bright-colored flowers when I first arrived immediately caught my eye. It was chrysanthemum season and there were displays at every street corner, in supermarkets, gas stations, everywhere…
Learning French Etiquette
Having worked hard on my French language skills, disguising my Quebecois accent and trying to acquire that certain French ‘je ne sais quoi,’ I was confident about my ability to integrate. So imagine my delight when I received a dinner invitation from the elderly couple who lived below me. They probably felt sorry for me in my cramped accommodation. Their apartment was quite grand and I was filled with anticipation.
This being my first French dinner party, I solicited advice from a French acquaintance I’d met as to what to wear and an appropriate gift for my hosts. Chocolates? Fine. Wine – no, the French prefer to choose their own. Flowers? Perfect. Chrysanthemums.
When I went to the flower shop there were chrysanthemums in all sizes and colors. A multi-colored beauty caught my eye, seemingly saying ‘take me home!
Being invited to a formal dinner party in France, guests are expected to arrive around 7pm for the traditional “apéro,” or pre-dinner drinks. At the appointed hour I arrived armed with my elaborately wrapped bouquet.
Oh… but one glance at my hostess’ face told me something was not, well, quite right. Had I mistaken the date? Was I too early?
Smiling awkwardly, she began to say something, clearly changed her mind, then she gathered my bouquet in her arms. My mood immediately lifted as I was invited in and wonderful cooking aromas wafted through the air. I complimented my hosts on their elegant home, and I enthusiastically asked if they liked my bouquet.
“I was unsure what to choose,” I explained, “but I noticed the French particularly love chrysanthemums.”
They smiled and explained, in a most gracious way, the significance of chrysanthemums and La Toussaint (All Saints Day) which we were celebrating in a few days. We laughed and all was forgiven. Besides, it was time for the apéro.
Nothing was served as mundane as chips and peanuts. Rather, delicious little ‘amuse bouches’ (I love that name) served with a choice of wine or champagne.
Next was ‘à table’ where we enjoyed course after course of exquisitely presented food, accompanied by fine wines.
Conversation flowed easily and the other guests were charming. I realized I had fantastic neighbors and that France would fulfill my early dreams.
A Word about the Role the Chrysanthemum Plays in All Saints Day (La Toussaint) in France
La Toussant is the traditional day when the French visit cemeteries to clean up tombs and place flowers on the graves of deceased family members and close friends. It is customary to leave chrysanthemums, an important symbol of grief and funerals, or wreaths of artificial flowers, on or close to the graves. Candles may also be lit to symbolize happiness in the afterlife and it provides an opportunity to strengthen family ties in a respectful atmosphere.
Now you can see why Chrysanthemums are rarely given as gifts!