Le 1er mai is an annual public holiday in France and many other countries around the world. However, in France, this date is more than just a day out of the office!

Back on 1 May 1560, King Charles IX of France was presented with lily of the valley (“muguet” in French) flowers as a lucky charm. The King appreciated the gift so much that he decided to gift the flowers to every lady of his court every year on 1 May. This gesture started to become more commonplace at the beginning of the 20th century with men presenting lily of the valley flowers to women to express their affection.

These days, it has become custom to give a sprig of these flowers as a token of appreciation to close friends and family members on 1er mai. For one day each year, the French government allows the tax-free sale of lily of the valley flowers on the street to promote this tradition and ensure its continuation.

The day also became a public holiday, formally known as La Fête du Travail (Labour Day), back in 1948. Since then, 1er mai has also been an opportunity for trade unions and to campaign for and celebrate workers’ rights and other social issues.

Finally, remember that nearly everything will be closed on 1st May so be sure to do your shopping the day before!

Click HERE to discover more French traditions.

May in France - Lily of the Valley

1er Mai – French Traditions

The “Fête du Travail” in France is celebrated on May 1st each year. It’s a public holiday dedicated to honouring workers and their contributions to society. In France, it’s often marked by demonstrations, rallies, and parades organised by labour unions to advocate for workers’ rights and better working conditions. People also commonly exchange lily of the valley flowers, known as “muguet,” (as a symbol of good luck and prosperity. The day holds historical significance, dating back to the late 19th century when workers fought for better working conditions, including an eight-hour workday.

The Fête du Travail was first officially celebrated in France on May 1st, 1890. This date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket affair, which occurred in Chicago, United States, in 1886. The Haymarket affair was a pivotal event in the history of the labour movement, where workers were striking for an eight-hour workday. The French government officially recognized May 1st as Labor Day following the international labour demonstrations and strikes that took place in the late 19th century, which advocated for better working conditions and labour rights.

La Fête Du Travail in France – Le 1er Mai

France had historically been supportive of the United States, having played a crucial role in the American Revolutionary War by providing military and financial assistance to the American colonies. By the late 1800s, both countries had undergone significant political and social changes. France was a republic, having experienced the upheavals of the French Revolution and subsequent transitions of power. The United States had become a major industrial and economic power, rapidly expanding westward and undergoing its own social transformations.

The Haymarket Affair, also known as the Haymarket Riot or Haymarket Massacre, began as a peaceful labour protest demanding an eight-hour workday but escalated into violence and chaos.

In the late 19th century, industrialization in the United States led to harsh working conditions, including long hours, low wages, and unsafe working environments. In response, labour activists and unions began advocating for an eight-hour workday as well as other labour rights and reforms. On May 1, 1886, thousands of workers across the United States participated in demonstrations, strikes, and rallies to demand an eight-hour workday. These protests became known as the May Day or International Workers’ Day demonstrations. In Chicago, a large rally was held in Haymarket Square on the evening of May 4th to protest police violence against striking workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company the previous day. The rally initially proceeded peacefully, with speeches from labour leaders and activists. As the rally was winding down and only a few hundred people remained, Chicago police arrived to disperse the crowd. Suddenly, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks, resulting in chaos and violence. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire led to the deaths of several police officers and civilians, as well as many injuries. In the aftermath of the Haymarket Affair, authorities conducted a widespread crackdown on labour activists and anarchists in Chicago. Eight men, including prominent labour leaders and anarchists, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder, despite little evidence linking them to the bombing. Four of the defendants were eventually executed, one died in prison, and the remaining three were later pardoned by the governor of Illinois.

The Haymarket Affair had a profound impact on the labour movement in the United States, sparking debates about labour rights, free speech, and the role of government in labour disputes. It also solidified May 1st as International Workers’ Day, commemorated by workers and labour activists worldwide and, of course, in France. 

May 1st in France – Labor Day

Many businesses, shops, and government offices are closed on this day, and there are often restrictions on certain types of work and activities. However, there are exceptions for essential services and businesses that provide services to the public, such as hospitals, transportation, and restaurants. Additionally, certain industries, such as healthcare, emergency services, and some retail sectors, may operate with reduced staff or modified schedules to ensure continuity of services.

May 1st in France – Le Muguet

The tradition of giving lilies of the valley, or “muguet” in French, on May 1st during the Fête du Travail (Labor Day) in France has its roots in several historical and cultural aspects:

May 1st falls during springtime in the Northern Hemisphere when flowers are blooming. Lilies of the valley are among the first flowers to bloom in France in May, symbolising the arrival of spring and new beginnings.

In France, lilies of the valley have long been associated with luck and happiness. Legend has it that on May 1st, 1561, King Charles IX of France (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-IX-king-of-France) received a sprig of lilies of the valley as a token of good luck and subsequently decided to give them to the ladies of his court every year on May 1st. This tradition gradually spread among the French population.

The tradition of offering lilies of the valley on May 1st became intertwined with the Fête du Travail (Labor Day) celebrations in France. In the late 19th century, during the struggles for workers’ rights and better working conditions, the lily of the valley became a symbol of solidarity among workers. It was often sold by labour unions and activists to raise funds for workers’ causes.

May 1st is also celebrated for its pagan roots, primarily in Celtic and Germanic traditions, as a festival marking the beginning of summer and the fertility of the land. One of the most well-known pagan celebrations associated with May 1st is Beltane.

Beltane

Beltane is a Celtic festival that traditionally falls on May 1st or the evening of April 30th. It marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Beltane is a time of great significance in Celtic culture, representing the height of spring and the beginning of the pastoral summer season.

Beltane is a fertility festival, and many of its customs and rituals are centred around encouraging fertility in the land, livestock, and people. This includes the lighting of bonfires, which symbolise the sun’s growing strength and its power to bless the land with fertility.

One of the most iconic Beltane traditions is maypole dancing, where dancers weave colourful ribbons around a tall pole. This dance symbolises the intertwining of male and female energies and is often accompanied by singing, music, and feasting. People would often adorn themselves and their homes with flowers, greenery, and other symbols of fertility to welcome the arrival of spring and encourage abundance in the coming season.

1er mai – French Traditions