3 May 2011

La Fête du Muguet

Last Sunday, 1st May, was a busy day in the diary. Firstly it is referred to as Labour (Labor) Day as a homage to 1st May 1886 when a workers strike in Chicago (USA) pledging the 48-hour working week (6 days x 8 hours a day) ended in a bloodbath when the police force fired gunshots at them. Three years later, in 1889, the Paris International Socialist Congress decided to symbolically dedicate 1st May in support of the 8-hour working day plight. This would eventually be ratified through Parliament no less than thirty years later, on 23rd April 1919...

Ensley Furnace (Alabama c1906), via Shorpy (Juniper Gallery)
Labour Day, as it symbolically became known as, is recognised in many countries around the world. Labour Day became a paid bank holiday in France in 1947; employees working it would be granted double pay. Traditionally in France on 1st May, trade unions march down the streets peacefully across the main French towns and cities, to perpetuate the tradition, while using it as a platform to voice any griefs they might have, usually with some political connotation. Human rights groups join the march.

Meanwhile each year in Britain the first week-end of May (known as the May Day bank holiday week-end), spans a three-day week-end (i.e. including Monday). Village fêtes traditionally commemorate it one way or another (market stalls, morris dancing, medieval re-enactments, etc.). This year, our lucky neighbours will have enjoyed a four-day bank holiday extravaganza, courtesy of the Royal Wedding celebrations.


Now back to France and on a much more romantic and sweeter note than Labour Day, the French celebrate 1st May by purchasing (or picking in the wild) a few twigs, a bouquet or pot of muguet (lily of the valley). Fabulously fragrant and the darling of couture house perfumes, lily of the valley is also reported to bring good fortune to those who take it home on 1st May (not exactly the latest fad as this French tradition dates back to 1561!). French trade unionists marching down the streets on 1st May wear the flower on the buttonhole as their symbol for Labour Day.

My mum keeps her muguet for a whole year (admittedly the plant has no super powers that enable it to keep that long, especially if cut, or kept indoors in its original pot), before replacing it with a fresh one the following 1st May.


Now that's a fragrant talisman that everyone should treat themselves to, if only to take Spring home and enjoy the wonderfully fresh and infinitely feminine aroma. Meanwhile La Baguette belatedly wishes everyone: Bonne Fête du 1er Mai!

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