The first of May is important for two reasons in France – muguet (lily of the valley) and Fête du travail (Labour Day). And, although it may seem unlikely, the two are connected.
Lily of the valley is a good luck flower here in France. With its little bell-like flowers, it has always symbolised spring. It was through the Celts and their beliefs that it became associated with luck. The tradition of offering it to people as a lucky omen began in 1561 with Charles IX. Someone gave him a sprig of lily of the valley, and he thought that was such a nice idea that he in turn gave sprigs to all the ladies in his court on 1st May.
Lily of the valley is also thought to bring happiness in love. There used to be bals de muguet (lily of the valley balls) and only young people could attend. Their parents weren’t allowed in to keep an eye on them. The girls dressed in white and the boys wore muguet as a buttonhole.
The whole idea of Labour Day began in the USA in 1886 in Chicago, where a general strike took place. It lasted several days and came to a violent end.
Three years later, at the eleventh Congress of the International Socialists in Paris, which marked the 100th anniversary of the Revolution, a decision was made to work to achieve an 8 hour working day. The date of 1st May was chosen as the day of action to commemorate the Chicago incident.
From 1890 onwards, the protesters who marched on the 1st May wore red triangles to represent their demand for an equitably divided day consisting of 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep and 8 hours of leisure. Eglantine replaced the triangle, and then in 1907 lily of the valley. And there’s the connection!
In 1941, under the Vichy government, the first of May was officially designated as Fête du travail to give workers a morale boost. In 1947 the day became a paid holiday.
There are lots of sayings about May, and you know I like sayings! So here are some timely dictons:
En mai, fais ce qu’il te plaît. In May, you can do what you like !
Au premier mai, fleurit le bon muguet. On the first of May the beautiful lily of the valley blooms.
Bourgeons de mai, remplit le chai. Buds in May fill the storehouse.
Au mois de mai, le seigle déborde la haie. In the month of May, rye overwhelms the hedgerows.
S’il pleut premier mai peu de coings, s’il pleut le deux tu n’as plus rien. If it rains on the first of May, there’ll only be a few quinces. If it rains on the second, there won’t be any at all. (French people love their quinces!)
De la pluie le premier jour de mai, ôte aux fourrages sa qualité. Rain on the first of May means poor quality forage.
But we also have …
Les pluies d’avril donnent le grain, celles de mai du fourrage. Rainfalls in April mean plenty of grain, while those in May mean good forage.
Pluie du premier mai présage année fertile. Rain on the first of May predicts a productive year.
Voici le printemps de merveille, Voici le joli mois de mai. Here is the wonderful springtime, Here is the beautiful month of May.
Le mois de mai, de l’année décide la destinée. May decides the destiny of the year.
Du mois de mai la chaleur de tout l’an fait la valeur. A warm May gives the whole year value.
Plus mai est chaud, plus l’an vaut. The warmer May is, the greater the value of the year.
Rosée de mai, automne gai. Dew in May, cheerful autumn.
Rosée et fraîcheur en mai, Donnent vin à la vigne et foin au pré. Dew and coolness in May mean productive vineyards and fields.
Quand l’aubépine rentre en fleur, crains quelque fraîcheur. When the hawthorn flowers, beware of cold spells.
En mai, fleurit le hêtre et chante le geai. In May the beech flowers and the jay calls.
Petite pluie de mai, rend tout le monde gai. A little rain in May makes everyone happy.
Averse de mai a plus de pouvoir que dix grands arrosoirs. A May shower is better than ten big watering cans.
Beaucoup de fleurs en mai, bel été assuré. Lots of flowers in May mean that summer will be good.
Au mois de mai, arrache pelisse, chapeau et manteau. In May you can take off your fur-lined coat, your hat and your overcoat.
Mai sans roses rend l’âme morose. A May without roses makes you sad at heart.
Mai mouillé, foin au pré. A damp May means hay in the fields.
Mai ensoleillé rend la paysan orgueilleux. A sunny May makes the countryman very satisfied.
Mai fait le blé, juin fait le foin. May makes the corn, June makes the hay.
Chaleur de mai fleurit ta haie. Warmth in May makes the hedgerow blossom.
Daily snippets for 1st May
Today’s Saint: St Jeremy
Famous French person born this day: in 1881, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, priest, palaeolontologist and philosopher**
Famous French person who died this day: in 1935, Henri Pélissier, cyclist
Today’s word: travail – work