Mention May 1st in France and people will automatically think of two things: (1) Great, no work today! and (2) Let’s go buy some muguet! Muguet is the French word for lily of the valley, a white flower that is closely associated to the French Labor Day holiday or Fête du Travail. Growing up in Renaison, a small village in the Roannais (an agricultural region about two hours from Lyon), my father would return from his morning errands on May 1 with un brin de muguet (a small bunch of lily of the valley) tied with a ribbon for my mother, brother, grandmother, and me. Muguet is found everywhere that day as vendors set up shop on street corners throughout France.
On the night of April 30th to May 1st, there is a local custom called passer le mai (passing into May). Late into the night, young people go from house to house singing joyful songs about the renewal of spring, similar to how some Americans sing carols at Christmas. People used to invite the carolers into their homes and offer them eggs and coins, but nowadays this custom is less prevalent.
Oddly enough, the May 1st holiday originated in the United States when large groups of workers protested in 1886 to shorten the work day to eight hours. French unions followed suit, and May 1st became a day for workers to schedule protests in favor of a shorter work day. Workers would wear a red triangle to symbolize the division of the day into work, sleep and leisure. May 1st officially became a paid bank holiday in France in the 1940s. Although the holiday was once celebrated with a red flower, a color associated with France’s Socialist Party, the more neutral muguet eventually took its place. The muguet is a symbol of happiness and joy, so don’t forget to buy one if you happen to be in France that day!