May 1st has a special significance in the French calendar, since it’s la Fête du Travail (labour day), when everyone downs tools. Even our local newsagent closes on May 1st, although it is open every other day of the year, Christmas Day included. Since 1947, this day has been a paid public holiday in France.
In France public holidays are celebrated on the day they fall. [Note: written in 2014!] This year May 1st happens to be a Thursday, which means that a lot of people will take Friday off as well and will enjoy a long weekend. This is known as faire le pont (making the bridge). Since May 8th (celebrating VE Day in 1945) and May 29th (Ascension) also fall on a Thursday, there will be a lot of ponts this month.
It’s also the start of the vide-greniers (jumble sale) season. In normal times [written with the perspective of 2020-21], almost every village in the area has one today.
Spring is sprung
May 1st has long been associated with the beginning of spring. The Romans celebrated Flore, goddess of flowers gardens. It’s also Beltane, when the Celts passed from the season of darkness into the season of light. Victor Hugo wrote a poem entitled ‘Premier Mai’:
Premier mai ! l’amour gai, triste, brûlant, jaloux,
Fait soupirer les bois, les nids, les fleurs, les loups
[The first of May! Joyful, wistful, burning, jealous love
Makes the woods, the nests, the flowers and the wolves sigh.]
The month of May is an important one in the agricultural calendar, since the weather determines what happens to the crops. Hence the saying ‘Mai fait ou défait’ (May makes or breaks).
Symbol of work
It all started in the States in 1886, when many (but not all) workers won the right to an eight-hour day. In 1889, the 2nd International Socialist Congress took place in Paris and chose 1st May as ‘International Workers’ Day’. They also began a campaign for an eight-hour working day.
Two years later, the police fired on a workers’ parade in Fourmies in northern France. After that, workers wore a wild rose (églantine) as a symbol of the bloodshed and in honour of earlier revolutionary Fabre d’Eglantine. In 1919, the French senate agreed to the eight-hour day. They also made May 1st a public holiday.
Under the Vichy regime, Maréchal Pétain instituted la Fête du Travail et de la Concorde sociale (work and social harmony day) in 1941. Vichy abandoned the wild rose, too closely associated with the Left. May 1st also happened to coincide with Pétain’s patron saint’s day – Saint Philippe. The fête was swept away at the Liberation but reinstated in 1947, when it became a paid public holiday.
Fête du muguet
Throughout France today, you’ll see muguet (Lily-of-the-Valley) being sold and presented for luck. The flower appeared in Europe in the Middle Ages and was purportedly presented by Charles IX to all the ladies of the French court from 1561. However, it wasn’t associated with la Fête du Travail until the 20th century.
On May 1st sellers of muguet are traditionally allowed to trade without paying tax.
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