May 1 is a day that is lumped together with Christmas Day and New Year’s Day as a major holiday in France. It’s not just because the weather is becoming pleasant and people need an excuse to have a holiday from work. Rather, it’s a day to celebrate and campaign for worker’s rights. In English, it is called May Day, but in France it is la Fête du Travail (Labor Day).
In Grenoble, public transportation is not running, but restaurants are open, and shops, including the grocery stores, which normally open from 9 to 12 on Sundays, are closed. Marché de l’Estacade, the farmer’s market closest to us, was teeming with people this morning. And on our way along the streets, we saw people who had set up card tables to sell the traditional muguet (mew-geh), lily of the valley or dogwood flowers in bunches. I snapped a picture of Steve buying a 1€ sample from a vendor, and it made a lovely picture in the little vase I found among the glassware.
The lilies-of-the-valley tradition started with French King Charles IX on May 1, 1562. The previous year on that date, “Chuck” had been given some of the delicate flowers and was so touched that he decided to establish the tradition of presenting them to the ladies of his court each year thereafter. Around 1900, the tradition was adopted by French suitors, who gave them to the ladies they hoped to woo.
Nowadays, people buy them and present them to family and friends. Because May 1 fell on a Sunday this year, they are being bought in bunches and added to other flowers to make a bouquet. Then the bouquets will be brought to the Sunday family déjeuner (lunch), which so many French families share together every week.
We have not seen or heard any parades or demonstrations celebrating the French worker, but that may be because it is a Sunday and that seems to be kept sacred for families. Sorry that we shall miss that sign of solidarity.
French folk singer George Brassens wrote these words about the beloved muguet:
Le premier mai c’est pas gai / The first of May is not cheerful
Je trime a dit le muguet / I slave away, said the lily of the valley
Dix fois plus que d’habitude / Ten times more than usual
Regrettable servitude / A regrettable encumbrance
Once it finishes playing, you can passe ta souris sur les clochettes – pass your mouse over the bell flowers to play your own tune.