Why is lily of the valley given on 1 May in France?
A sprig of ‘le muguet’ is traditionally given to loved ones to bring good fortune for the year ahead
Long associated with spring, renewal and luck, lily of the valley is given as a gift in France on 1 May, a public holiday known as La Fête du Muguet. It’s thought that the tradition of offering le muguet to family and friends can be traced back to 1561 when King Charles IX of France received a sprig of the plant’s sweetly scented, bell-shaped white flowers. Told that it would bring him luck and prosperity for the year ahead, he decided to share the good fortune by offering lily of the valley to every lady in his court, and continued to do so each year.
Lily of the valley also played a prominent role at the bals du muguet, an annual ball that was traditionally hosted throughout Europe. On this rare occasion when young people would be allowed to meet without their parents present – indeed it was the only ball of the year where parents were banned from attending – girls would wear white dresses and boys would wear a sprig of muguet as a buttonhole. A sweet Moselle wine known as the ‘boisson de mai’ (May drink) would be served for their enjoyment, and it was said that taking a sip on 1 May would guarantee happiness for the rest of the year.
In the early 20th century, it became customary for men to offer a bouquet of lily of the valley to their sweetheart, fiancée or wife as a token of their devotion. This would later extend to new mothers who would receive visits on 1 May from family and friends bearing gifts of bunches of the fragrant white flower to fill the house as a good luck charm for the baby. People also began to send cards on 1 May featuring images of le muguet to wish each other luck and love.
Around 85% of France’s lily of the valley is grown in the Nantes area with the rest coming from Bordeaux. Today, the French continue to offer lily of the valley to their loved ones on 1 May, with many families getting up early to go into the woods to pick the flowers themselves. Plants and bouquets are widely available for sale across the country and it’s estimated that some 60 million brins de muguet (sprigs) are sold in France each year, representing an official market worth €24 million. However, on 1 May – and on this day alone – anyone in France can legally sell bouquets of lily of the valley on the street, without having to pay any taxes, as long as they adhere to certain conditions. These include being at least 40 metres from the nearest florist and not selling any other type of flower, and with street vendors also taken into account the value of the market quadruples to €100 million.
In more recent times in France, le muguet has been linked to the workers’ rights movement, with 1 May also marking La Fête du Travail (Labour Day). Following a general strike to demand an eight-hour working day and a demonstration by workers at the Haymarket Square in Chicago on 1 May 1886, the date was recognised as the day for international workers’ rights. Workers and supporters of the demonstrations would march through the streets wearing a red triangle on their lapels, a symbol which represented the three parts of the desired working day – eight hours for work, eight for leisure and eight for sleep.
The decision in 1889 to make 1 May a day of protests in France was the result of an initiative by French journalist and politician Jules Guesde, and it was marked for the first time in 1890. In place of the red triangle demonstrators began to wear a sprig of lily of the valley tied with a red ribbon, establishing a connection between the white flower and France’s Fête du Travail.
The eight-hour working day was officially introduced in France on 23 April, 1919 and 1 May became a public holiday called the Fête Internationale des Travailleurs (International Workers’ Day). Renamed by the Vichy regime during World War II as the Fête du Travail et du Concorde Sociale (Work and Social Unity Day), it ultimately became known as the Fête du Travail in 1948. As a public holiday to recognise workers’ contributions to society, most businesses in France are closed on 1 May.
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