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May 1st in France

May 1, 2011

King Charles IX of France received  a sprig of Lily of the Valley (muguet in French) on May 1st 1561 as a good luck offering. Charmed by the looks and the scent of the plant, he decided to give a sprig of it to all the ladies in his court, every year, on May 1st. The tradition of offering a little posy of this dainty flower to the lovely ladies in your life has remained ever since.

If you happen to be in France on May 1st, you will be approached, not to say pestered, by all sorts who will try to sell you their little good luck bunches. This is the only day in the year when one can sell flowers to the general public without a permit to do so. The whole tradition can degenerate into a nightmare situation, particularly near rail stations and in supermarket car parks. In the countryside, entire families descend on the woods where lily of the valley grows in the wild and pick the flowers in their thousands.

May 1st in France is also la Fête du Travail, Workers’ day. This is an immovable Bank Holiday instituted by the Vichy Government in 1941 who was trying to rally round the working classes. In fact, the movement finds its origin much earlier, in 1889. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the Socialists decided to reserve May 1st as a day dedicated to the fight for the 8 working hours in any 24 hours. Protestors first wore a red triangle to indicate their triple request: 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours fun. Eventually, the triangle was replaced by a sprig of dog rose, then by one of lily of the valley.

In April 1947, the French Government picked on the idea and declared May 1st a non working day for all, with full pay.

Now most European countries have adopted this rest day although in Britain, it is celebrated on the first Monday in May.

When I was in Southampton hospital, recovering from heart surgery, in April 2001, I received a  “get well”card from France, from my mother. Nestling in the card was a sprig of lily of the valley that she had picked for me………..with all the love and best wishes that it conveyed to me. The nurses were concerned to see me in tears, clutching my lucky charm. I didn’t have the strength to explain.

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