May 1st, Labor Day and May Day in France

May 1st (May Day) is known worldwide as Labor Day, but in France it is also May Day - Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley) when the French greet each other with a sprig (or a small bouquet) of lily of the valley, a flower that is considered a lucky charm.

The tradition dates back to the beginning of the century when unemployed people (the unemployment benefits did not exist and people had to finding ways of making ends meet) went into the woods that were still found in the big cities ‘suburbs to pick lilies of the valley.

C. m. cv. Plena

Lily of the valley, Double-flowered Convallaria majalis

The lily of the valley is in full bloom in late April early May, and is one of those wild plants that spread very quickly, invading clearings and edges of wood! It grows everywhere and is almost considered as a weed. People just needed the patience of picking it and composing small bouquets that they tied with a ribbon.

They sold them in the markets as women once loved to decorate their blouses with a sprig of lily of the valley, a custom that was a remainder of the old pagan tradition when people were celebrating spring by adorning themselves with flowers!

Many provinces have retained a version of this ancient tradition by decorating a pole (May Pole) with flowers. This is reminiscent of the tradition of planting a flowering tree outside the door of the girls to marry off, then followed the huge feast when they widely celebrated spring, nature and love.

Convallaria majalis 0002

Lily of the valley, Convallaria majalis

In the language of flowers, the lily of the valley symbolizes “marital happiness”. It was therefore natural to link it to dating and popular dances known as “Bals du Muguet” were organized every year so that singles could meet their soul mate. The girls dressed in white and young men wore a sprig of lily on their lapel, and parents and chaperones were banned from attending!

C.m. cv. Rosea

Pink lily of the valley

The lily of the valley has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages but it is said to originate from Japan where it is considered a symbol of spring. Some sources, however, attest that the Celts knew the flower and that they already  considered it as a lucky charm.

The French tradition of giving a sprig of lily of the valley as a good luck charm on May 1st dates from May 1, 1561 when King Charles IX receives a sprig.

May 1st Labor Day

May 1st  is widely known as the international Labor Day when all trade unions parade in the major cities.

Labor Day New York 1882

Labor Day New York 1882

The origins of Labor Day is quite different from that of the Fête du Muguet, and go back to May 1, 1886 in Chicago when Americans unions launched a strike movement to obtain the 8-hour working day. The movement lasted until May 4 and paralyzed many factories. The major riots that ensued ended by a dozen dead, including seven policemen. Five anarchists were later sentenced to death.

The 2nd Congress of the Socialist International held in Paris on June 20, 1890 decided to make May 1st the worldwide symbol of the workers’ struggles with the aim of obtaining the 8-hour working day. From the following year protesters wore a red triangle on their jackets to symbolize their triple claim: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of leisure!

1900s Toronto LabourDay Parade

1900s Toronto Labour Day Parade

The triangle was replaced by a dog rose flower (symbol: happy days pass too quickly), and a sprig of lily of the valley in 1907.

On 24 April 1941, the Vichy Government officially recognized May 1st as Labor Day and made it a Public Holiday to rally the working classes.

Source photos: Photo #1 Wikimedia Commons Attribution Photo#2 Wikimedia Commons Attribution Photo#3 Wikimedia Commons Attribution Photo#4 Wikimedia Commons Attribution Photo#5 Wikimedia Commons Attribution


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About the author

I am French Parisienne and lived in Asia for nearly 20 years before settling in the UK 3 years ago. I have an interest in everything and every culture and am an avid reader. French linguistics is my "specialty" but I have a passion for history and try to mingle them. Humour is very important to me, I love writing, talking, laughing, exchanging ideas, learning more from others... the world is full of fascinating people! I never leave my home without my camera, there is always something unusual, beautiful or strange to capture. I like to pay attention to details, to the world of the "small", a parallel world if you take the time to look for it...And above all, I love my country of birth, France.
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  • Muguet is one of my favourite scents.
    In Argentina, we celebrate Labour Day on May 1st too. So everybody is off work today :)

    • Argentinians are not the only ones happy being off work! :)
      Muguet is such a traditional, understated flower yet with a marvellous fragrance! It was widely in cosmetics used in the past.

  • This year was the first time I had heard of May 1st being a day for union labour (at least that I remember!). It’s not a holiday, typically here, but this year there were Occupy protests.

    We have a Labour Day that falls on the 1st Monday of September. That is a day off for many.

  • What you are saying is very interesting Kelly! English don’t seem to celebrate Labour day either, but will have a Spring day off next Monday 6!
    Labour Day has always been huge in France, no matter the government was in place, and virtually everything is closed on that day.
    It is the only public holiday that is often paid triple to those who have to work on May 1st (i.e. nurses, aviation people etc…)
    The tradition of offering muguet is huge as well, we would feel almost “rude” if we were doing it! It certainly sounds odd to foreigners… :)

  • AledysVer

    The lily of the valley is such a delicate flower in looks, but I think it’s quite resilient to the elements, since it spreads so easily. I read about the connection between this flower and marital happiness, since it’s the flower preferred by the character May in Edith Wharton’s novel, “The Age of Innocence”.

    1st May is also recognised here in the NL as Labour Day but it is NOT a holiday! The thinking is, what better way to celebrate Labour Day than by labouring! :)