May 1st (May Day) is a bank holiday in France, officially known as ‘La Fête du Travail (National Labour Day)’ but also called ‘La Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day)’.
A brief history of May Day in France
The French observance of La Fête du Muguet can be attributed to Charles IX on May 1st, 1561. While traveling with his mother, Catherine de Medici, to the Drôme, a Chevalier, Louis Girard, gave him a sprig of muguet as a symbol of luck. Charles was so taken with this gesture that he offered it to all of the ladies of his court and decreed that from that day it would be the official flower of May Day.
May 1st officially became a bank (public) holiday in France in 1919 after the 8-hour work day was adopted, and originally workers wore a red triangle symbolizing their rights, but it was replaced by the muguet.
From the early 20th century, it became tradition in France on this day to offer a few sprigs of muguet to loved ones, and it is also given as a general token of appreciation between close friends and family members.
There was also an old European tradition of “bals de muguet” or Lily-of-the-Valley dances; once a year, this was a rare occasion for young singles to meet without having to get their parents’ permission. The girls would dress in white and the boys would wear a sprig of muguet as a buttonhole.
In the few days preceding May 1st – and of course on the actual day – you can buy small sprigs of this white flower in florists and most supermarkets, for a few euros.
So, now when you see people carrying these small white flowers with cards saying ‘Je porte bonheur’, you know something about the tradition.
Interesting fact about muguet
Don’t be fooled by the sweet-smelling scent of these pretty bell shaped flowers – muguet is poisonous.
Toxicity is the plant’s defense against animals eating its seeds. All parts of the plant—the stems, the leaves, the flowers and the berries—are extremely poisonous and close to 40 different cardiac glycosides have been found in the plant so far (strong compounds that affect cardiac rhythm).
But, unless you plan on brewing large quantities and ingesting it you should be fine with displaying a few sprigs in a vase – just keep it out of reach of small children.