Where does the May Day tradition come from?

Every year for May 1, we treat ourselves to a few sprigs of lily of the valley. Carrying strong symbols, this plant which takes its name from the Latin Convallaria majalis, but also known as lily of the valleys is an essential symbol of spring. Moreover, according to popular belief, this lily brings good luck. It is also linked to the Workers’ Day. But why is lily of the valley linked to the 1st day of May? Back to the story of a flower that rhymes with happiness.

A cultural heritage with multiple origins

In pots or in the garden, lily of the valley is easy to care for and has a short flowering time, ranging from 3 to 4 weeks. Although it can be grown, we know this plant above all thanks to a popular tradition spread throughout Europe: for May 1st, it is customary to offer a few sprigs of lily of the valley. Both a symbol of spring, luck and social progress, we love it for the positive values it embodies, just as much as for the irresistible shape of its bells and its delicate fragrance.

two sprigs of lily of the valley
Credits – nitrub / Easy Gardening

On the side of ancient legends, Apollo would have created lily of the valley to line the ground with it so that the nine muses would not damage their feet. Furthermore, in Roman times, floral games were celebrated (or floral games) in early May in honor of Flora, the goddess of spring and the garden, in order to promote abundant harvests. Later, in 1560, when Charles IX was still a 10-year-old young king, he was said to have been offered a sprig of lily of the valley during a visit to southern Dauphiné on May 1. He would then have spread this spring custom by offering lily of the valley to the ladies of the court. In the absence of historical references, doubt remains nevertheless permitted as to the veracity of this episode.

Lily of the valley, worldly lucky charm?

Some personalities have made the bell flower their banner. On May 1, 1895, Toulon singer Félix Mayol gave his first concert in Paris. The fashion of the time wanted men to pin a camellia to their jacket. However, the story goes that without a camellia, the artist would have decided to decorate his outfit with a sprig of lily of the valley before going on stage for a performance that marked the beginning of a great success. The lily of the valley then became his lucky charm. In homage to the child of the country, the rugby club of Toulon (the Mayol stadium) then adopted in 1921 the emblem of the 13-bell lily of the valley on his crest.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the great Parisian couturiers distributed a sprig of lily of the valley to their employees. Couturier Christian Dior also adopted lily of the valley as a favorite flower and emblem of the Dior house. On May 1, he used to offer lily of the valley to the seamstresses of his workshops as well as to clients.

Bouquet of lily of the valley in a vase
Crédits – undefined undefined / iStock

What does it have to do with Labor Day?

At the end of the 19th century, American unions rose up to obtain a reduction in working time from ten to eight hours a day. Thus, on May 1, 1886, in Chicago, a general strike began which ended in the condemnation to death of the insurgents.
In 1889, on the occasion of the centenary of the French Revolution and in homage to the tragic events in Chicago, May Day officially became “workers’ day” in France, with processions marching in order to obtain the reduction of their daily working time. It was in 1919 that the working day was established at eight hours. Finally, in 1948, May 1st became a public holiday, a day off and with pay, as we know it today.

Exceptional sales tolerance for individuals

The website of the Ministry of the Interior recalls that the sale of lily of the valley is possible in certain municipalities by municipal decree only on May 1. Inasmuch as private individual or association, you can sell lily of the valley at free pricebut respecting a few rules: a minimum distance with the nearest florist and the sale on the public road must be only in strand.

Retail sale of lily of the valley
Credits – Inkwell / iStock

Finally, if for the sake of species preservation you feel some qualms about cutting flowers in the wild, creative alternatives exist, such as this tutorial with a very nice box of eggs which offers the design of a sprig of lily of the valley not like the others !