Giving Lily of the Valley, a French May Day Tradition

Happy May Day, known as la Fête du Travail (Labour Day) in France. This was the only day of the year when our village newsagent (now retired) didn’t open. The day is devoted to May Day parades, family outings and the sale of sprigs of muguet (lily of the valley), given as tokens of friendship and good luck. So have a virtual sprig courtesy of Life on La Lune.  

I have fond memories of celebrating 1st May when I was a student in Oxford about a century ago. My friends and I got up at the crack of dawn and cycled down to Magdalen Bridge to listen to the choristers sing at the top of Magdalen College Tower. A tremendous crush of people remained silent during the ethereal chanting. Afterwards, we danced to jazz bands in the High, which was closed to traffic. Not a lot of studying was done that day.

Origins of giving muguet

I’ve written before about the 19th-century origins of 1st May as Labour Day (see link below). Today I want to focus on the significance of the muguet, whose origins date back much further.

In past times, people celebrated romance on 1st May, not on 14th February, unlike today. Lovers gave each other crowns of spring flowers. Charles IX took this a step further in 1561, when he offered a sprig of muguet to every lady in the Court.

The tradition of giving these bell-like flowers with a delicate scent took hold. Its links with Labour Day were strengthened in the early 20th century, when the grands couturiers gave sprigs of muguet to their workers and clients.

However, for a long time, the symbol of Labour Day remained the wild rose. Apparently, when Maréchal Pétain inaugurated Labour Day officially in 1941, he considered this symbol too proletarian and substituted the muguet.  

Wild rose, former labour day symbol

Vente à la sauvette  

Another peculiarity of 1st May is that la vente à la sauvette (sale in the street) of muguet is permitted. On this day, private individuals can sell muguet without being subject to taxes or penalties. Naturally, this is hedged around with all sorts of restrictions, mainly to prevent competition with licensed florists, namely:

  • The flowers must have been picked in the wild and not cultivated. They must be sold rootless, without the addition of other flowers, vegetation or embellishment.
  • Private sellers are not allowed to set up stalls, tables or any kind of semi-permanent installation to sell the sprigs.
  • They must not set up within 40m of a licensed florist.

It hardly seems worth the bother to me, but last night’s TF1 news showed whole families at work picking and assembling the sprigs, so I guess it must bring in some much-needed cash for some. The going rate this year is reckoned to be €2 per sprig.

We have our own pot of muguet, which has flowered obligingly for today. However, since it counts as cultivated, we are not allowed to sell it. The traffic past our gate is negligible, anyway.


In other news

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the first time we saw our house. Was it really a quarter of a century ago? Last Tuesday, the weather was much the same as it had been on that 26th April 1997: warm and sunny after a slightly chilly early morning, with skies of an improbable cobalt blue. The countryside was bursting with spring green. A cuckoo called in the woodland West of the house – a good omen, apparently.

Last Tuesday, a cuckoo called in the same spot in the woodland that now belongs to us. I doubt if we will make another 25 years here, but I like to think it’s a good omen for the time we will continue to spend in this house.

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  1. Vanessa
    Your latest post reminded me of a previous visit to the Mayenne region a few years ago.I was unaware at the time of the tradition and ignorant of the significance of the date but I do remember the wonderful reaction of the little girl when I gave her a euro or two for a sprig of Muguet.
    I like to think I did my bit for Anglo-French relations!
    I am looking forward to my next visit to Mayenne next month after a 3 year absence from visiting France.
    Best wishes to you and your family

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do like these traditions that are peculiar to France. There’s often a long history behind them. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your visit. Three years is a long time. Hope all is well with you and yours. Vanessa.


  2. I must admit this post made me a little nostalgic. I still feel very attached to the French calendar of events, and miss the May 1st tradition of offering muguet while demonstrating for workers’ rights. Congrats on 25 years! Here’s to long life for the cuckoo. 🥂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We have been in France a few times on May 1 and have seen these little bunches of flowers. One year we were in a gite in Tourtoirac in the Dordogne and the neighbours, who we had spoken to a couple of times, gave us a bunch . We did not know the tradition and had to wait until we had internet again.
    25 years is certainly something to celebrate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a lovely tradition. Muguet flowers conveniently for 1st May.

      The real celebrations will be in August, which will be the 25th anniversary of our moving in. Watch this space!


  4. Still no cuckoo’s here, but there are plent of compensations.
    We have lily of the valley on it’s way, but everything is much later here.
    Right now, the bluebells are looking good in the local woods.
    Fascinating story of the history of giving muguet. Where is “the High” though?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Our container of lily of the valley was one you gave us last year. Flowering nicely this year. No bluebells here, but they aren’t indigenous.

      The High is short for the High Street. It’s what everyone in Oxford calls it.


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