Sunday, May 01, 2005

May Day

Today is May Day.

In memory of the deaths that occurred in Chicago on May 1st, 1886 during the demonstration demanding an eight-hour working day for all workers, today was adopted as Labor Day in 1889 at the Founding Convention of the Second International in Paris. In the years since then, this Labor Day has traditionally seen trade unions and other political organizations parade and demonstrate to protest various governments - and their policies - in many countries in Europe. During the Cold War, there used to be huge parades in the capital cities of Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. Kremlinologists would attempt to decode changes in USSR leadership by studying the positions, appearances and disappearances of the individuals sitting and standing on the podium in Moscow's Red Square.

Times have changed, eh ?

What hasn't changed so much, however, is how one spends one's day in France. Thirty or forty years ago, there were huge political demonstrations while the country simply stopped functioning on May 1st. Nowadays, with rampant globalization – and fewer demos and less political involvement - not everything shuts down completely. Preparing for May 1st does take a bit of advance planning. Not as much as it used to, but some forethought is necessary.

First, think about food. This paid national holiday is one on which the vast majority of shops (more than 98%, according to government figures) remain closed by law. Shopping for food on the preceding day is always a must. Huge numbers of restaurants are just not open on May 1st. Entertainment ? Some cinemas and almost all museums are closed as well. Transport ? Significantly reduced trains and metros; quite a few gas stations are closed, too. This year the holiday falls on a Sunday, so the impact of the May 1st break in the working week is substantially reduced. This morning two of the three boulangeries in Amerloque's neighborhood are closed. The line at the third one stretches out the door and down the street - at 07h30. Amerloque will give up his Sunday croissant aux amandes, since ever the traditionalist, he must locate and purchase the best muguet he can.

The muguet ? That's the Lily of the Valley, in English. For centuries the Lily of the Valley has been a symbol of renewal and Spring. On May 1st, 1561 Charles IX began the tradition of offering a muguet for luck. In 1907 the muguet was first associated with Labor Day. In 1936, year of the Front Populaire, unlicensed street vendors began selling sprigs of muguet to passerby. Nowadays, postwar French tradition ordains that one must offer au moins un brin de muguet ("at least one sprig of Lily of the Valley") to the loved one on May Day.

French commercial law, usually very strict as to who can sell what, provides that absolutely anyone can sell muguet on the street on May Day, without a license, from sunup to sundown. However, this on-street muguet must absolutely be the wild variety, gathered in the woods and forests - and not greenhouse plants, which can themselves only be sold at florists' shops. This proviso of the law is probably more honored in the breach than in the observance, since last year at Rungis (the wholesale market for Paris and its region) 1,212,135 sprigs of Lily of the Valley were sold, down from 1,227,422 in the year 2003. Not all of these were resold by florists, that's for sure.

So, off early to find muguet. Meeting the vendors, smelling the fragrance, checking for wild muguet and not the hothouse variety (wild muguet is darker green, hothouse muguet is lighter green and has larger white cloches), negotiating the price: those are the important parts of French May Day, for Amerloque. At Rungis the price this year is between 15 and 20 euros for 50 sprigs. He hears that the going rate on the street will be un euro le brin, at least in the morning (late afternoon prices will be lower).

That's quite reasonable - and a price Amerloque will cheerfully pay, for tradition.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger PTA Mom said...

I just realized from reading your post that I missed the annual muguet vendors on the Paris street. I always enjoy seeing so many people selling flowers. Thanks for providing the history of the day.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...


Last year, I had written a few lines on the "muguet" on Jason's blog. I wish I could use as it appeared then. It ended with the mention that the sale of "muguet" on the sidewalks in France on May 1st was filling the "communist party piggy bank". It may not be so true nowadays and most of the "twig" sellers are doing it for the benefit of their own private piggy bank. ???

I also would like to mention that in many regions of Europe, lily of the valley is on the endangered species list & should I give a title to this post, it would be : "Requiem for Spring flowers." Too many people pick lily of the valley with the roots (rhizomes) thus killing the plant. The invasion of the forest at the end of April is death on the vegetation, not only of lily of the valley. Yet, it is not recommended in France to post a "ne pas cueillir le muguet" sign at the edge of the forest. That would be an invitation to pick it! As much as I love the French, I hate them when they pick wildflowers, particularly the rare & endangered ones, while in other European countries, the "no-no" signs are obeyed.

The daffodil (=jonquille) is another flower overly picked in the "sous-bois d'Ile de France" to be sold on sidewalks.

I would like to suggest a flower to pick with no problem to the environment & no risk of endangering the species. It is the ubiquitous "pissenlit" (= dandelion)!

Imagine the sidewalk scene of someone holding a bouquet of dandelions & inviting you to buy it for your sweetheart on the 1st of May!

9:22 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Frania !

Salut l'Amerloque! - I hope you can remove my "doublon" on the 1st of May & muguet.

Your wish is my command (smile): no problem. I've removed it !

It would be great if you could find your post about the muguet and comments about the coffers of the PCF (Parti Communiste Francais). It would be edifying !

I'll never forget the first time a French friend offered dandelion salad for lunch. (smile) I must admit I was dubious, dubious, but she was right: it's excellent !


11:29 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Auntie !

I just realized from reading your post that I missed the annual muguet vendors on the Paris street. I always enjoy seeing so many people selling flowers.

Well, you were off having a wonderful time in Egypt ! Your report about the trip is a great read on your blog.

This year it turned out to be un brin de muguet pour un euro, as expected. I thought there were fewer vendors on the streets. Perhaps it's because May 1st was a Sunday and it fell during the school holidays. Too, a lot of people have apparently saved up their vacation time and combined it with the three holidays this week (May 1st, Ascension, and V-E Day) to take an extra few days off.


11:36 PM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

This is what I had put in August of last year on Jason's blog (when I discovered it)concerning May 1st celebration & its origin.

"There is a lot to write on the 1st of May and Lily of the Valley in France and I shall try to be concise. The origin of most holidays of our Western World is to be found in Antiquity, May First included, which celebrates Spring. And which flower could represent best this lovely time of the year but fragrant and delicate Lily of the Valley or "Muguet", le Muguet-porte-bonheur! That was the flower to give your beloved maiden in the Middle Ages and on until the second part of the 19th century and the Age of the Proletariat when the world workers decided not to dance around maypoles on May the first but to demonstrate in the streets for shorter work days, like eight hours instead of twelve to sixteen. In 1882, not wanting to share the celebration of Labor Day with left-leaning countries, the US government moved Labor Day to the first Monday of September.
Back to the First of May and Lily of the Valley in France. In 1947, May the first was officially declared "Fête du Travail" (French for "Labor Day") with parades of workers under the banners of their syndicates, which in most case were endorsed by certain political parties... certain very much on the left. Now, where does all that leave our pretty little Lily of the Valley, the flower of lovers? What place give it in a workers' parade? Well, we are in France, a country where workers are also lovers (as in the rest of the world, by the way.) So they adopted the flower. Not exactly adopted it but took it over, insidiously, in fact, they kidnapped it. In the last days of April, thousands Lily-of-the-Valley-kidnappers go in the forest and pick all they can see and on May First, they sell the beautiful twigs on street corners.
You buy them for your lover and the money goes... into the communist party piggy bank.

NOTE (1): The above can be found on Jason's archives of 12 August 2004.

NOTE (2): L'Amerloque seems to have more information on the history of May 1st as a day of workers' celebration.

Frania W.

6:56 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Frania !

Many thanks for reposting from Jason's blog. That's great !


3:08 AM  
Blogger PutYourFlareOn said...

Great history on May Day and the Muguet. I hadn't smelled a muguet before I moved to France a couple years ago. I absolutely adore the scent to the point that I buy muguet scented floor cleaner. I didn't know about the difference btwn greenhouse muguet and wild ones, next year I'll have to look and seek out the two and smell the difference.

2:45 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Flare !

Welcome aboard ! (smile)

One thing neither I nor Frania mentioned is that the muguet is poisonous, as is the water that the sprigs have been put into. One doesn't want to allow kids or smaller domestic animals to swallow any part of the plants or to drink the water - death by cardiac arrest would result.


10:19 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

L'Amerloque, I meant to add earlier a comment to your "May Day" blog after you brought up the toxicitiy of Lily of the Valley. There are so many poisonous plants that it is impossible to list them all, so I looked up several sites which are added at end of comment.

The families of plants to be careful of are:

EUPHORBIACEAE (Spurge, Poinsettia, Castor Bean Plant, a garden ornamental from which castor oil is extracted is a deadly plant);

LILIACEAE (various Lilies, Lily of the Valley & Solomon Seal whose berries are very poisonous, also Colchique = Autumn Crocus);

SOLANACEAE (Datura, Deadly Nightshade, Egg Plant, Petunia, Potato, Tobacco, Tomato...). All these plants contain the alkaloid solanine, which is the reason one should eat only ripe (and cooked) potatoes as the solanine is found in the green skin one can see when potatoes are not totally ripe.


And one of the deadliest of them all, made famous by the death of Socrates: Hemlock in the UMBELLIFERAE family - that of the Carrot - an herb looking somewhat like parsley, but prettier, in my opinion.

Many of these toxic plants have qualities that are appreciated in pharmacology but can be deadly if eaten “nature”. It is good for parents to recognize them & make sure they are not in gardens where their offspring are playing.

Posters with list & picture of toxic plants, including mushrooms, are in most pharmacies in France.

The following sites are interesting, the best being the one done by "Mairie de Marseille" & the one "discussions entre mamans", with plants names in French & Latin. a funny site but not complete.

Frania W.

11:46 PM  
Blogger PutYourFlareOn said...

Responding a little late to your comment about eating Muguets... my cat is always crazy about Muguets when we have them in the house and I don't let him near them as I know he'll eat it whole if he could. I had no idea they were poisionous. Thank goodness, I kept him away from them. Something about the smell makes him crazy.

1:17 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Flare !

Ouf ! Glad nothing untoward happened.

The minous seem to love muguet, for some reason. I don't know why.


6:37 AM  

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