From street sellers vending bell-shaped flowers to union marches across the country, here are some of the traditions which take place on May 1st in France (which celebrates both May Day and Labour Day on the 1st of May)…
In many countries around the world, Labour Day is celebrated on the 1st of May annually, marking the achievements of workers. The first of May is also known as ‘May Day’ in many European cultures and is a traditional celebration where spring is celebrated by dancers, maypoles, and festivities. Labour Day in France (Fete du Travail) is a public holiday, meaning that many businesses are closed or operate at reduced hours.
A brief history of Labour Day in France
A day of long standing tradition, Labour Day is typically marked as a ‘jour ferié,’ which means a paid day off for many workers across the country. Only, this comes with a certain caveat! You see, whereas in the UK workers are guaranteed to have the Monday off which is closest to May 1st, so as to form a long weekend, workers in France get the day off work on whatever day May 1st falls (so bad luck if it’s on a Saturday or Sunday!)
In terms of what is open and what isn’t… Well, typically very few stores are in operation! In Marseille, Lyon, and many smaller French towns and cities there is no public transportation available. In Paris, the metro and bus services run at a very limited capacity.
As well as limited public transportation options, the majority of retail stores as well as restaurants are also closed. In terms of food stores, some are open, though they often run with limited opening hours, even in Paris.
Union marches are also commonly organised on the 1st May across the country. It’s worth noting that Labour Day isn’t actually celebrated on a global day each year, and in some countries it’s actually celebrated on September 1st as opposed to May 1st.
Muguet (Lily of the Valley) Day/ May Day in France
May Day is a longstanding celebration of spring, which is celebrated across many European countries with county fairs, dancing festivities, and beautiful flowers wreaths. In the UK, there’s also the tradition of May Day Maypole dancing, whereby folk dances take place around a Maypole.
France celebrates May Day slightly differently to its across-the-channel neighbour. You see, one of the loveliest traditions to take place on the 1st of May is the gifting of lily of the valley flowers, which are known as ‘muguet’ in French.
On this day, florists all over l’Hexagone sell these delicate bell-shaped flowers, as do street vendors. Though you’re typically not allowed to flowers from the side of the street without a license (or without being taxed!), on May 1st these rules are relaxed, meaning that anyone can sell Lily of the Valley plants. Of course, there are still a few rules to abide by; for example, you can’t sell your flowers within 40 metres of a florist, nor can you sell anything but lily of the valley!
It’s customary to purchase and gift these sweet flowers to those you love (both romantically and platonically) and a gift of the muguet signifies friendship, a celebration of spring, and good luck. As well as lily of the valley plants, other gifts can be sprigs of the plant or a bouquet of the lily of the valley flowers.
Where did the gifting of the lily of the valley come from?
As with many ancient traditions, no one can quite be sure as to where the custom emerged from, though there are, of course, plenty of theories. Lily of the Valley has been present in folklore throughout the centuries, and it’s pretty likely that the Celts would have gifted the sweet smelling flowers to one another.
However, it’s quite likely that the muguet gifting tradition in France likely emerged as early as 1561, when King Charles IX was gifted a sprig of lily of the valley on the 1st of May. In turn, he decided to gift every lady in court a sprig of the bell-shaped flower, and thus the tradition had begun.
And so, for the past five centuries or so, the gifting of the lily of the valley has been commonplace in France every year on May the 1st. In more recent times, workers on their Labour Day marches have worn lily of the valley sprigs on their lapels to mark May Day.