May Day in France – la Fête du Travail

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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 its two leaves. The sweetly scented white flowers are bell-shaped and grow in late spring, around the end of April and beginning of May in shady locations.


The traditions of the 1st May in France

Spring time in the Vosges © 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, lily of the valley is sold everwhere on streets across France on the first of May and is one of the symbols of springtime and of good luck.

May Day is also known in France as the Fête du Travail (Labour Day). It is a bank holiday; hence 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

Lily of the valley is closely related to May Day.

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

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

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 flowers are 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 due to an early spring season and too much sun in March and April. Consequently, the delivery of the wild flowers to the French wholesalers were 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. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French 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.

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