la fête du muguet et du travail

Le Muguet

Le Muguet

Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plait.

In the month of May do what your heart fancies.

Provencal proverb

Today is a public holiday here in France, to commemorate la fête du travail and la fête du muguet.

I wrote a little about this tradition two years ago here, sharing my experience of a neighbour knocking on our apartment door and presenting me with this small token of friendship and bonheur (happiness) le muguet. Around town, I noticed people selling the small flowers in the street.

This commemoration actually has two origins and two separate histories, one dating back to the Middle Ages and the other to Chicago in 1886.

La muguet, also known as lys des vallées (lily of the valley) is a plant originating in Japan, long symbolising the arrival of spring, and on 1 May 1561, the year he became King, Charles IX chose it as a gift to bring bonheur to the women of the royal court.

Charles IX, King of France 1560-1574

Charles IX, King of France 1560-1574

It wasn’t until 1976 that it was also associated with la fête du 1er mai, la fête du travail.

In Chicago in 1886 a movement was launched to lobby for the 8 hour working day and the 1st of May was chosen to commemorate it. A strike involving 400,000 workers on May 4, referred to as the Haymarket Riot, paralysed a number of factories, the protest became violent resulting in the death of a dozen people including seven police.

Haymarket Riot, 4 May 1886, Chicago, Illinois

Haymarket Riot, 4 May 1886, Chicago, Illinois

In June 1889 in Paris, for the centenary of the French revolution, it was decided to associate the 1st of May with the objective of attaining the 8 hour working day and in commemoration of the movement launched in Chicago on 1 May 1886.

Initially, they wore a red triangle to represent the triple objectives, 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours of leisure. This was replaced by the flower l’églantine and finally in 1907 by le muguet.

On 23 April 1919, the 8 hour day was ratified by the French senate and on 24 April 1941, during the German occupation,  the 1st of May was officially designated la fête du travail.

8 hours

Today la fête du travail is celebrated in most countries across Europe, except Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is also celebrated in South Africa, Latin America, Russia and Japan.  In the UK, the first Monday in May is celebrated and in the US, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

Voila! Bonne fête à tout le monde.

Le Muguet – Becoming French

Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plait.

In the month of May do what your heart fancies.

 Provencal proverb

So today I feel like sharing a little bit of French culture with you, the 1st of May is a public holiday in France for the Fête du Travail and the day you will find people offering Le Muguet (Lily of the Valley) to their friends, neighbours and acquaintances, a tradition that began during the Renaissance in 1561, when Charles IX offered them to his subjects as a symbol of porte-bonheur or good luck.

Now associated with the Fête du Travail on 1 May, anyone can sell the flower on the street without requiring a licence or permission. Today I walked into the centre-ville and came across many people who are spending their day, sharing the magic of Le Muguet with the public.

The first year I came to live in France, I learned of the tradition when my next door neighbour knocked on the door and presented me with this delightful flower, explaining its significance.

Six months into adapting to this life, language and culture, it was a welcome gesture and reminded me how important it is to reach out to others, even if they appear to be coping, we can all do with a little ‘porte-bonheur’ from time to time.

And in the spirit of acknowledgement and small celebrations, congratulations to Juliet Greenwood whose book Eden’s Garden’ has been named ‘Welsh Book of the Month’ for May 2012, a sprig of ‘Lily of the Valley’ for you Juliet. To celebrate she is giving away a free signed copy of her book, click here to enter.

Finally, with Spring emanating everywhere, I thought I’d share my recent discovery and purchase of a book of 12 stamps (un carnet de timbres), with its theme ‘the language of flowers’, I hope you can guess the English equivalent:

Le Langage des fleurs

Pensée / Affection

Coquelicot / Joie

Arum / Ardeur

Muguet / Bonheur

Tulipe / Amour

Violette / Modestie

Iris / Tendresse

Œillet / Fidélité

Rose / Passion

Pivione / Générosité

Marguerite / Attirance

Dahlia / Admiration

Bonne fête à tous!