You know it’s May in France when sprigs of fragrant ‘muguet’ (lily of the valley) are sold by vendors from pop-up stands on seemingly every street corner. The flowers are said to bring good luck, and they are given in abundance to friends, family, and neighbors. Le 1er Mai, the first of May or May Day, is an important holiday in France; the fête du travail (International Worker’s Day) is marked by annual labor demonstrations, along with this centuries-old floral tradition.
Of course this year is different because of the coronavirus pandemic. Flower shops are closed, and the traditional sale of lily of the valley will be tightly restricted. (No open stalls on the street.) The Ministry of Agriculture has assured that the sale can still take place; it’s important to support the horticulturalists whose livelihood is threatened. We can buy the pretty white bells in supermarkets, boulangeries, and other shops that are allowed to be open at this time.
The custom of offering muguet bouquets on May 1st goes back to medieval times, but it wasn’t officialized until 1561, when King Charles IX offered the flowers to every lady in his court to celebrate le premier mai. And so this lovely gesture became an official French tradition, ushering in the spring season. Pictured below: A photo from the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, depicting some ladies in 1911 proudly wearing their bouquets of muguet.