May 1 is la fête du Muguet (la fet do moogay) and la fête du Travail (la fet do traveye) in France. Muguet des bois (day bwah) are lily of the valley, one of the sweetest looking and most fragrant flowers of any season, although they only appear for a short time each spring. The tradition is to buy bunches of the flowers and give them to loved ones. As a tip of the hat to the labor unions, vendors may sell them without collecting taxes or complying with retail regulations only on this day. Parades and demonstrations in support of any social issue you can imagine, and probably a few you’ve never contemplated, take place all over, as May 1 is a civic holiday.
The two traditions – flowers and labor – celebrated on the same day have separate origins. Charles IX was presented with muguets on May 1, 1561. He was so charmed by the gesture that he decided to give them to all the ladies of the court the following May 1. It became popular for men to present ladies with muguets at the turn of the last century. Now, it’s more a friends and family token of affection. The date gained new significance in 1919 when the eight hour work day was inaugurated in France. It became an official holiday in celebration of labor causes after World War II.
Today’s expression, travailler pour le roi de Prusse (trav-eye-A poor luh rwa duh Proose) literally means “to work for the king of Prussia” but figuratively means “to work for nothing.” If you have a decent salary today, you may owe thanks to those who fought for fair wages and safe working conditions in years gone by. Why not celebrate your purchasing power by buying someone you love (maybe me!) a great spring bouquet?