1er Mai, Fête du Muguet

by Steve Martindale

The 1st of May brings with it the French tradition of the giving and receiving of small bouquets of muguets, or lily of the valley. Although the flower has become associated with Labour Day, which is the official status of the May 1st public holiday in France and across much of the world, it has its roots in the Renaissance court of Charles IX, nearly 500 years ago.

Flowering as it does in the month of May and symbolising for many the regeneration of spring and the promise of a prosperous season ahead, it was given by Charles IX to those around him on the 1st May 1561 to bring them good luck.

Labour Day itself didn’t arrive in France until 1889 when the date was adopted as the Fête du Travail, following an international congress in Paris in memory of those who had died demonstrating for an eight-hour working day in the Chicago riots.

At a demonstration in Paris in 1890 over the eight-hour day, workers wore a red triangle in their buttonholes to represent the three equal parts of what they saw as the ideal division of the day: work, rest and leisure. This triangle was subsequently replaced by the red rose and later still, the muguet: presumably because it flowered at around this date. It wasn’t until 1936, coinciding with the advent of paid holiday leave, that the muguet became available for sale commercially on and around 1st May.

The modern tradition is to give your friends and loved ones bouquets of these fragrant flowers on this date to wish them luck and happiness. So popular has this custom become that the flower is intensively cultivated, especially in the region around Nantes, specifically for this date. There is even a law that allows any member of the public to sell the flower commercially free of taxation and without a license (so long as they do it at least 100 metres away from the nearest florist).

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