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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Muguets for May Day

France celebrates May Day with anarchy and fragrance from a better world.

imageImage: French Gardening

Baisers to our French readers and to Francophiles everywhere. (Incroyable, there are even some of us in Texas.)

Along with protests of globalization and worker holiday parades, May 1st brings an outpouring of floral traditions across Europe. My favorite, ever since teachers Josette Kearns, Bernadette Brown, and Nicole Neukirch informed me, is the French custom of selling, giving and wearing muguet des bois, lilies of the valley.

French Gardening tells us:

“Lily of the valley is referred to as a porte-bonheur—literally, bringer of happiness or perhaps what we would call a good luck charm.

“A few days before May Day, you begin to see vendors popping up on every corner selling lily of the valley.  Although at all other times of the year, selling any kind of flowers or anything else on the street requires paying for a permit, merry May Day is exempted from this evil tax, and anyone can sell the blossoms anywhere without being tithed by the city.  And of course, every florist has pots and bouquets of lily of the valley dominating their outdoor displays… Even the Metro is perfumed.”

Lily of the valley happens to grow wonderfully well where I grew up, and to bloom around May first. So I’d always assumed this was a very old custom, dating to pre-Marxist, pre-capitalist, pre-Christian France. But it appears I was wrong.

While Convallaria majalis L., liliaceae family, grows wild in much of Europe and has been regarded as bringing good luck since the Renaissance, its specific association with May Day came much later, from popular and commercial culture rather than folk tradition.

imageFelix Mayol

According to this terrific little essay,  “On May Day 1895, (Felix) Mayol, the cabaret singer, was greeted by his girlfriend Jenny Cook with some lily-of-the-valley and that evening he wore lily-of-the-valley in his buttonhole instead of the more usual Camellia.” Long before Billie Holliday pinned a gardenia in her hair, Mayol was wearing a cluster of muguets des bois—fragrant enough to to reach the last seat in the balcony.

Given this boost of celebrity, the lily of the valley then became an up-market promotion: “The great fashion houses gave sprigs of lily-of-the-valley to their customers and apprentices on May Day.”

imageMuguet seller, Brittany

Photo: Bretagne Air

This same source declares 1976 as the year lily-of-the-valley was thoroughly associated with May Day. If my French teachers can be trusted, and they can, I’d say 1976 is a bit late. The muguet meant May Day in France by at least 1965. As always, we welcome your experiences, learning, observations.

Our thoughts are with you, nos amis francais, who manage to balance anarchy with elan. For those who find the deconstruction of lovely floral customs disenchanting, we say, tant pis. Deconstruction, too, is French. Pin on your muguets des bois and head on down to the anti-globalization march.

Posted by Julie on 04/30 at 03:28 PM
Culture & SocietySecular CustomsPermalink