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Origin of 1st May, Labour Day, and the French Tradition of giving some Lily of the Valley

By No author
03/05/2010

 
 

1st May and its origin are as old as the world

 
·         In antiquity, it was the time when sailors would return to sea.
·         For the Celts, it was the beginning of the first semester of the Celtic calendar.
·         In the Middle-Ages, it was the month when couples would get engaged.
·         It’s only since 1889 that it has become Labour Day
 
In all instances, it is a time of festivity.
 

1st May as Labour Day

On 1st May 1886, around 200,000 workers thanks to their unions, managed to obtain the eight-hour working day. A few years later, in commemoration, the Europeans instigated “Labour Day”.
 
This movement had started two years earlier and employers had been given two years by the unions to put the 8-hour day in place. Many employers immediately accepted but approximately 340,000 employees had to go on strike to finally obtain this amazing achievement and many lost their lives or were sent to prison.
 
It is important to point out that until then, it was common to work 10 to 12 hours per day 6 days a week. Sunday was the only day of rest.
 

The First of May in France

 

Demonstration
Demonstration

It is during the German occupation, on 24th April 1941, that 1st May was officially marked as Labour Day and became a bank holiday. This measure was brought in with a view to rally the workers to the Vichy regime.

René Belin instigated this measure. He used to be an active member of the CGT (one of the key unions in France) but now found himself one of the junior ministers of the Petain Government.

 

Lily of the Valley and 1st May

In France, after 1890, the 1st May demonstrators traditionally wore a red triangle on their lapel. It symbolised the division of a working day in three parts: Sleep, Work and Play.
 
A few years later, the triangle was replaced by the eglantine flower. In 1907, The eglantine was swapped for lily of the Valley, which symbolised the Île-de-France region. Lily of the Valley sprigswere then warned with a red ribbon.
 
It is worth noting that the muguet (French for Lily of the Valley) only appeard in gardens in the XVI century. Until then in Europe, it was only found in forests.
 
During the renaissance, Lily of the Valley became a lucky charm and was associated with the festivities of 1st May. Of course, then, it had nothing to do with Labour Day.
It is only at the beginning of the 20th century that it was given its role of 1st May Flower. This was due to two main factors:
-          On 1st May 1895, the singer Mayol was welcomed by his friend Jenny Cook with a bunch of Lily of the Valley. That evening, he decided to wear it in his button hole instead of the usual camellia.
-          1st May 1900, ‘Les Grands Couturiers’ started to give their customers and seamstresses  lily of the Valley sprigs.
       

In 1976, Lily of the Valley was finally associated with 1st May and now, millions of sprigs  are sold on that day.

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