May Day in France – la Fête du Travail


May Day in France is symbolised by lilies of the valley, commonly known as ‘muguet’ in French. It is a woodland plant found in the cool temperate parts of France. The flowering stems are easily recognisable with their two leaves. The sweetly scented white flowers are bell-shaped and grow in late spring, around the end of April and the beginning of May in shady locations.

The traditions of May Day in France

Jardins de l'Europe, Annecy © French Moments

Spring in the Jardins de l’Europe © French Moments

Tradition has it that the flower came into being from Eve’s tears when she was forced to leave the Garden of Eden. Another tradition confers the existence of the flower to the Virgin Mary as a result of the tears she cried at the Crucifixion.

Traditionally, the lily of the valley is sold everywhere on streets across France on the first of May. It is one of the symbols of springtime and of good luck.

May Day in France is also known in France as the Fête du Travail (Labour Day). It is a bank holiday and most shops and convenience stores are closed. It is the perfect time of the year for demonstrators to campaign for and celebrate workers’ rights.

Lily of the valley is closely related to May Day

May Day in France - A sprig of lily of the valley © French Moments

A sprig of lily of the valley © French Moments

The tradition of offering lilies of the valley dates back to 1st May 1561.

On that day, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He created the tradition when he decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of his court.

At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom on the 1st of May to give a bunch of lily of the valley to relative, friends or work colleagues. The flowers are a more general token of appreciation between people. A school pupil might offer a bunch of lilies to his/her favourite teacher.

Picking lily of the valley in the forest

May Day in France - Lily of the valley (muguet) © French Moments

Lily of the valley (muguet) in a French forest © French Moments

The French State tolerates individuals and workers’ organisations to sell them free of taxation. When driving around the country, it is not rare to see roadside stands or people selling wild lilies previously picked fresh in the forests.

For families living near the countryside and forests, it is a rather good afternoon outing on Sunday (or Labour Day) gathering a beautifully fragranced bunch of lily of the valley. Back home, the bunch is put in a vase to decorate and perfume the whole room.

A delicate flower…

Lily of the valley (muguet) in a French forest © French Moments

Lily of the valley (muguet) in a French forest © French Moments

The Lily of the valley is subject to seasonal weather variations in spring. In 2011, the white bells were quite rare to find and rather expensive to buy for May Day. This was due to an early spring season and too much sun in March and April. Consequently, the delivery of the wildflowers to the French wholesalers was down by 40% – 50%.

80% of the production of lily of the valley originates from the region of Nantes. In 2010, the total turnover from the selling of the flower reached 25 million euros.


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About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".


  1. In 2012, a former Swiss business associate had sent me a potted plant of lily of the valley from France for May Day. I did not know its historical meaning back then. Now I do.

    It took the plant five years to produce flowers on the balcony. I prefer them un-cut, because with each breeze, I get a whiff of them. Yes, I spend a good amount of time on the balcony. 🙂

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