If you are travelling around France on the 1st of May, you will see numerous stalls by the roadside and in shopping centers selling small plants with lovely white flowers. The are the Muguets of May (Lily-of-the-valley or convallaria majalis).
The First of May is a Public Holiday in France, National Labor Day (la fête du travail) and is also called Lily of the Valley Day (la fête du muguet). It is a tradition to give some flowers of the lily-of-the-valley or even a whole plant to loved ones on the 1st of May.
The 1st of May is probably a fusion of a few traditions.
- The lily-of-the-valley evokes the coming of spring and was regarded as a lucky charm (un porte-bonheur) by the Celtes.
- It is said that the tradition of giving these flowers goes back to King Charles IX of France who was presented with some lily-of-the-valley flowers for good luck. He continued this tradition by giving some to the ladies of the court each May 1.
- There is also an old tradition of dances (bals de muguet) which were an opportunity for singles to meet each other. The girls would dress in white and the boys would wear flowers of the lily-of-the-valley on their lapels.
More recently the day has become a celebration of the improved conditions of workers. The 8 hour working day was introduced in France on April 23, 1919 and May 1 became the International Worker’s Day. It officially became Labor Day on April 29, 1948.
These traditions perhaps now take second place as the “muguets de Mai” have become a a wonderful way show appreciation to loved ones.