May Day – 1er Mai – Fête du Muguet
Labour Day – May Day is known as Premier Mai in France.
The Premier Mai doesn’t only have a political connotation; it’s also the Fête du Muguet.
On that day, French indeed greet each others with a sprig or a small bouquet of lily of the valley (muguet) because they consider the flower a lucky charm.
This tradition reappeared in the early 20th century.
Unemployment benefits then didn’t exist, so people had to find ways of making ends meet!
So, they picked bunches of lily of the valley in the woods that surrounded Paris.
They then sold them in the markets, as women then loved to decorate their blouses with a sprig of lily of the valley.
Furthermore, the money they made selling lily of the valley was not taxed (isn’t still!) on that day!
A Pagan tradition
The Lucky charm – Lily of the Valley custom evolved from a pagan tradition.
Ancient folks indeed adorned themselves with lily of the valley in order to celebrate the new season.
It was also their way of invoking the good graces of the god Beltane for good harvests.
They therefore considered lily of the valley a lucky charm!
The Greeks said that Apollo, their God of Light and Sun, lined the ground of Mount Parnassus with lily of the valley so that his Muses could walk bare-foot.
The Romans abundantly used the flower during the Florales.
This annual celebration was dedicated to Flora, their goddess of Flowers and Spring.
The lily of the valley is indeed in full bloom in late April early May, and is therefore one of the first spring flowers.
A Christian tradition
Preachers evangelized France between the 5th and 6th centuries.
However, they couldn’t eradicate pagan beliefs overnight, so they simply incorporated them to the Christian religion.
Therefore, for centuries farmers and villagers planted a blooming tree outside the door of the girls to marry off.
This was also an occasion to celebrate Spring, Nature and Love!
These traditions are now revived throughout France.
People indeed still erect a mast, known as Mât or Arbre de Mai, which they decorate with flowers for May 1st.
Sprig of Lily of the valley, a tradition since 1561
Charles IX initiated the tradition of giving friends and family a sprig of lily of the valley for May 1st.
The young king was indeed given a sprig while visiting the Province of Dauphiné in spring 1560.
He found the practice very endearing.
In spring 1561, he therefore decided to give a sprig of lily of the valley to all the ladies of his court and said:
“Let it be done so every year”.
The custom spread like wild fire throughout the Kingdom of France!
Symbolism of the lily of the valley
In the language of flowers, the lily of the valley symbolizes marital happiness.
It was therefore natural to link the flower to dating.
An annual ball – Bal du Muguet – was organized so that singles could meet their soul mate.
The young women dressed in white and the young men wore a sprig of lily on their lapel.
Amazingly, parents and chaperons were banned from attending!
Labour Day – Premier Mai – Fête du Travail
May 1st is obviously the international Labour Day and is traditionally the day when all trade unions parade.
The origin of Labour Day goes back to Chicago on May 1, 1886.
On 24 April 1941, the Regime of Vichy officially recognized May 1st as Labour Day in France.
It also made it a Public Holiday in order to rally the working classes.
French Labour Day is known as Fête du Travail.