The First of May 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).
I received a lovely bottle of perfume last year – Muguet Blanc by Van Cleef & Arpels – and thankfully the scent is gorgeous enough to extend wearing it just beyond the one day that inspired it.
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.
The French observance of La Fête du Muguet can be attributed to Charles IX on May 1, 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, a gesture that Charles was so taken with he offered it to all of the ladies of his court and decreed that, henceforth, it would be the official flower of May Day.
From the early 20th century, it became traditional 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. You can buy small sprigs of this white flower in florists and most supermarkets, for a few euros.
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 parents’ permission. The girls would dress in white and the boys would wear a sprig of muguet as a buttonhole.
So, now when you see people carrying these small white flowers with cards saying ‘Je porte bonheur’, you know something about the tradition.