Au mois de mai, fais ce qu’il te plait.
In the month of May do what your heart fancies.
Today is a public holiday here in France, to commemorate la fête du travail and la fête du muguet.
I wrote a little about this tradition two years ago here, sharing my experience of a neighbour knocking on our apartment door and presenting me with this small token of friendship and bonheur (happiness) le muguet. Around town, I noticed people selling the small flowers in the street.
This commemoration actually has two origins and two separate histories, one dating back to the Middle Ages and the other to Chicago in 1886.
La muguet, also known as lys des vallées (lily of the valley) is a plant originating in Japan, long symbolising the arrival of spring, and on 1 May 1561, the year he became King, Charles IX chose it as a gift to bring bonheur to the women of the royal court.
It wasn’t until 1976 that it was also associated with la fête du 1er mai, la fête du travail.
In Chicago in 1886 a movement was launched to lobby for the 8 hour working day and the 1st of May was chosen to commemorate it. A strike involving 400,000 workers on May 4, referred to as the Haymarket Riot, paralysed a number of factories, the protest became violent resulting in the death of a dozen people including seven police.
In June 1889 in Paris, for the centenary of the French revolution, it was decided to associate the 1st of May with the objective of attaining the 8 hour working day and in commemoration of the movement launched in Chicago on 1 May 1886.
Initially, they wore a red triangle to represent the triple objectives, 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours of leisure. This was replaced by the flower l’églantine and finally in 1907 by le muguet.
On 23 April 1919, the 8 hour day was ratified by the French senate and on 24 April 1941, during the German occupation, the 1st of May was officially designated la fête du travail.
Today la fête du travail is celebrated in most countries across Europe, except Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is also celebrated in South Africa, Latin America, Russia and Japan. In the UK, the first Monday in May is celebrated and in the US, Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.