The first of May is Labor Day (la Fête du Travail) in France, a holiday. The day honors the work of all workers, and is similar to Labor Day observed on the first Monday of September in the United States. Because it falls on a Sunday this year (2016), many French workers will get Monday off; some businesses and most government offices will be closed. Check that your intended destination will be open before you set out!
The first of May is also a traditional day to wish happiness or bonheur to anyone you are visiting. In France, a sprig of Lily-of-the-Valley is considered a good-luck charm, or un porte-bonheur. Offering your friends or family members a sprig of Lily-of-the-Valley (un brin de muguet) on May Day is one of my favorite French traditions.
The tradition goes back as far as the first day of May in 1561, when someone offered King Charles IX of France un brin de muguet as un porte-bonheur and he decided to offer them to the ladies of his court every May Day after that. Other typical French lucky charms are four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, and lady bugs.
How lucky I felt ten years ago, when we bought a house in France, to discover that the tiny white bells of this little lily sprouted up from their slumbering bulbs right outside our new front doorstep in late April, ready to pick on May 1st. Fresh sprigs pack quite a punch for such a small flower. One sprig fills a room with the delicate scent for a week.
May Day Memories
Lily-of-the-Valley grew under my bedroom window when I was young, and it bloomed just about the time it was warm enough to open the window on sunny afternoons for a breath of fresh spring air. It was my mom’s favorite fragrance–and the Avon lady knew it!
The sale of flowers and other goods on the streets and sidewalks is regulated in France, but officials will normally look the other way for May Day and the sale of muguet. Many people will offer sprigs for sale and it’s generally considered tolerable for you to buy them from anyone on the few days around May 1st.
In the May Days of my childhood in Minnesota, my sisters and I made May Day baskets from empty milk cartons and construction paper, filling them with “flowers” made from tissue paper and pipe cleaners. Then early in the morning on May 1st, we’d hang our home-made baskets on the doorknobs of our neighbors’ houses, ring their doorbells, and run like crazy to hide!
In other countries, there are “May poles” to dance around to welcome spring, or bonfires to celebrate the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. (Read about “Beltane,” a Celtic celebration, in Wikipedia, for example.) May our merry-month-of-May traditions never wither! Wishing you happiness on May Day. And now for a pair of haiku—one for Mom, and one for Paris:
The fragrance of May
From tiny white bells–
Reminding me of home
In his coat pockets–
Sprigs of little white lilies
And crusty baguettes