May 1 will always be a Holiday to me even though it’s not celebrated in the U.S.
And what comes to mind are my all-time favorite Holiday-related questions, which are without a doubt: “Do you have Labor Day in France?” and “Do you have 4th of July in France?”
When faced with the challenge of answering these questions, one can only hope for a glimmer of wit to magically appear from somewhere – hopefully somewhere not too far! Depending on who is asking these types of questions, the answers will obviously need to be customized and will vary greatly going from a degree of sweet yet informative explanation – aka Foreign Cultural Experiences 101 – to a degree of scathing remark – aka Sarcasm-Advanced Level.
It’d look something like this:
“Actually, Labor Day in France is celebrated on May 1 and not on the first Monday in September. May 1 only became the official day to celebrate Labor Day because of an American event – how about that?!?! – called the Haymarket Affair which started on May 1, 1886 when workers demonstrated and fought for an 8-hour work day. In 1889, the French decided that May 1 would be the day to demonstrate and protest for reducing work days to 8 hours. And in 1947-1948, May 1 was officially known as Fête du travail (Work Holiday), understand Labor Day.”
Nice and sweet.
But then, this happens:
“Do you have 4th of July in France?”
I’ve heard this one at least 50 times! What this truly means is “Do you celebrate 4th of July in France like we do here?” The best possible answer about whether “we have July 4th in France” can only and truly be: “No, in France, the calendar strangely skips July 4th, we don’t have that day. We go from July 3 directly to July 5.” [smirk]
So with May 1st also comes another sensory celebratory landmark: le muguet - lily of the valley.
Labor Day is not only fun because it’s a day off; offering and giving out lilies of the valley to friends and family is part of the French tradition. They are a symbol of Spring and are thought to be a lucky charm since King Charles IX of France supposedly gave the ladies of the Court a sprig of lily of the valley on May 1, 1561 to bring them good luck throughout the year and celebrate the joys of Spring.
Every year shortly before May 1, the May lilies pop out of nowhere in all flower shops and supermarkets. Even on street corners, it is not unusual to see independent street-hawker-florists trying to make some money by selling sprigs and planted pots of lilies. And seriously, isn’t there anything better than to get up early on a beautiful May Day morning in Paris, walk down the streets before anyone is out and about when the sun is still light and soft, breathe the air, hear the quietness around and spot the lilies at each street corner shinning in the sun with their tiny blinding white bells?
Special guest photographer: Roger Noiseau for the photo of the lily of the valley (above)
As the French saying goes: “in May, do as you please”.
So wear your lilies proudly and however you feel like.
Look, this young lady placed sprigs of lilies on her bike’s handlebars! I wonder if she is going to meet some friends for a picnic by the Seine. And this guy here is wearing a sprig as a boutonnière on his coat. He must be going to a Labor Day lunch with family.
As Parisians walk by with sprigs in their hands, the crisp, light and distinctive sweet smell of the lilies fill the streets of Paris wherever you walk. It’s a once-a-year treat allowing everyone to bask in their floating aroma and enjoy some well-deserved time out from the world.