Labour Weekend: May Day in France

May 1st 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)’.

May Day in France

La Fête du Muguet can be attributed back to the 16th-century. On May 1st 1561, Charles IX was traveling with his mother Catherine de Medici to the Drôme and a Chevalier Louis Girard gave him a sprig of muguet as a symbol of luck.  Charles was so pleased with this gesture that he offered it to all of the ladies of his court and decreed that from that day onwards it would be the official flower of May 1st, May Day.

Small bouquets of muguet

May Day wasn’t declared a bank holiday in France until 1919 after the 8-hour work day came in, and originally workers wore a red triangle symbolizing their rights; later it was replaced by the 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.

Similar to red roses on Valentines Day, the price of muguet is hiked leading up to May 1st.  In the few days prior to – and of course on the actual day – you can buy small bouquets of muguet in florists and most supermarkets, usually it will be one or two sprigs for a few euros.

So, if you see people carrying these small white flowers with cards saying ‘Je porte bonheur’, you know something about the tradition here in France.


Facts about muguet

Don’t be fooled by the scent of these pretty bell-shaped flowers – muguet is actually poisonous and the toxicity is the plant’s defense against animals eating its seeds.  All parts of the plant including the flowers, leaves, stems and 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.

Perfumes with muguet

The toxicity has never deterred perfume houses from creating new fragrances with muguet as a note.  I received a bottle as a gift of Van Cleef & Arpels perfume ‘Muguet Blanc’ and I’m not entirely in love with it, but whenever I wear it people always comment on it so I think it is a familiar smell here in France.

Here are a few perfumes that feature lily-of-the-valley:

Diorissimo by Christian Dior

Muguet by Guerlain

Muguet Fleuri from Parisian parfumerie Oriza L Legrand – they have some beautiful vintage bottles and history about the inspiration for their fragrances on their website

Le Muguet by Annick Goutal

5 Things to do on the French Riviera on Labour Weekend

If you are looking for things to see and do this long weekend on the French Riviera, here are 5 suggestions:

  1. It is the last weekend to visit the garden displays of the Festivals des Jardins
  2. This weekend there is a strawberry festival in Carros (29 and 30 April)
  3. The Antibes Art Fair with antiques and art is still on until Tuesday 2 May
  4. Mouans Sartoux is hosting Fête du Miel on Sunday 30 April so head along for all sorts of honey-themed products
  5. It is the last weekend to see the eleven large Capron sculptures in Biot that have been in the town for the past 2 years

Thanks for reading my post!  Enjoy your long weekend