Overheard at the bar of my local café this morning (roughly translated):
– RATP worker on his break: “Did you get your Lily of the Valley flowers today?”
– Barman: “Yep, got some this morning on the way to work.”
– RATP: “Me too. Seems more expensive this year.”
– Barman: “I know. If you just take a walk around the forest you can usually find it for free.”
They actually went on for a bit, but the coffee machine drowned out their voices. I’m trying to imagine men in America picking up the little white flowers on May 1st to celebrate workers’ rights, although the French tradition was actually revived in the United States.
According to legend, King Charles IX started the Lily of the Valley tradition on May 1st in 1561 when someone offered him the flower as a symbol of good luck (a bit like the four-leaf clover). Afterwards the king offered the flower to the ladies of the court every May 1st.
Fast forward to the 19th century.
On May 1st 1886, American union workers in Chicago went on strike to demand an 8-hour work day. On the fourth day, the police killed a dozen workers when trying to disperse the strikers. A month later, Socialists gathered in Paris to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution, and declared May 1st would be an international workers’ rights day in remembrance of those killed. Their original symbol was a red triangle symbolizing 8 hours of work, 8 of sleep, and 8 of leisure. It eventually replaced by the dogrose flower, then in 1907 by Lily of the Valley (muguet in French) to recall Charles IX’s court.
May 1st was officially declared the Fête du Travail in 1941 by the Vichy government under the Occupation, in an attempt to boost workers’ morale. It has been a national holiday in France since 1947, and is celebrated in all European countries except Switzerland, Netherlands and the UK (which celebrates it the first Monday in May).