May 1st is to France what Labour (Labor) Day is to North America: a national holiday, a day of rest and relaxation, a nod to the workers of our society who keep the whole system running. In Paris today, and in most of the other large cities and even many of the small towns, parades and festivals mark the occasion. This year in particular, given that the Fête falls smack-dab in the middle of a Presidential election campaign, the day has a certain potent political flavor to it.
In France, le premier mai is a pretty big deal. One of the two French national holidays at the beginning of May, le Fête du Travail is always the 1st of May regardless of what day the date happens to fall on.
If you’ve ever heard a French person talking about taking their “pont,” meaning bridge, you can be confident that they are talking about their vacation planning. Taking your bridge, in French, is taking off the one day that stands between the national holiday day and a long weekend. This year, for instance, le premier mai falls on a Tuesday. Almost everyone in the country, therefore, took yesterday off as their “pont” making a long four-day weekend.
Historically, the premier mai and the Fête du Travail weren’t always the same thing. The Fête du Travail in France began in 1793 just after the French Revolution. It was originally slated for mid-January. However, in the late 1880s when the United States began its campaign for a Labor Day, the French modified their Fête du Travail to correspond with the growing labor movement worldwide.
Traditionally in France, on the premier mai, men give women a special flower called the Muguet de mai. This delicate white flower symbolizes happiness. In fact, in France it is the “porte-bonheur” meaning “happiness-bringer” of May 1. A wonderfully fragrant flower, the Muguet is also the flower of the 13th wedding anniversary in France.
This morning my father-in-law’s sister, Chantal, dropped by with a handful of Muguet de mai from her garden. Her husband handed the small bouquet of the delicate buds over to my mother-in-law, an arrangement which is now sitting on the kitchen table.
All over the country today you will find vendors selling small bouquets of Muguet. Ladies walking around throughout France will be holding the flowers.
Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to be able to smell the delicious odor of Muguet everywhere I turn today on this beautifully sunny First of May.
Bonne Fête du Travail from France!!