Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day in Paris

The first of May is a holiday in France…it’s the day officially set aside for the observance of the Fête du Travail…their version of Labor Day. But nowadays that aspect of the holiday has come to be somewhat overshadowed by a flower…for it’s also the Fête du Muguet…the day when everywhere you look, you see muguets de mai…also known as lilies of the valley. They grow wild out in the woods, but on the first day of May, they invade the city.

Here’s the view outside our window:

Muguet1 It is customary in France to offer friends and family a small bouquet of muguet as a gesture of caring and as a way to celebrate Spring. This harks back to King Charles IX when,  in 1561, he offered all the ladies of the Court a sprig of muguet. Actually, the practice harks back even further…back to when May 1 was New Year’s Day on the Celtic calendar and Celts would give sprigs of muguet to each other as tokens of good luck. Today, it has evolved into a fund-raising opportunity and an enterprising young lady by the name of Lara has set up her stand on the street below one of our windows. Think of it as a sort of French take on the traditional lemonade stand. This is the one day when it is permissible for anyone and everyone to sell flowers on the street without a proper license.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunday strollers along Pont Marie welcomed this impromptu stand and took advantage of the opportunity to purchase some sprigs of muguet…a symbol of hope and happiness.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAny other day and the merchant would have been “run out of Dodge” in less than five minutes!

A symbol of humility, early in the twentieth century, French labor union leaders wore a sprig of muguet in their lapel as a way of indicating their allegiance to the cause, but today that association has been long-forgotten. Muguet is instead used to convey affection and along that vein, it is also the traditional symbol for thirteen years of marriage…known as les Noces de Muguet.

The custom of May Day muguet-giving is not confined to just France…muguet is the national flower of Finland and the painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter shown below was commissioned by England’s Queen Victoria to commemorate May 1, 1851…that date signified the opening of the Universal Exhibition in London as well as the birthdays of two of those pictured…her son, Prince Arthur, who is holding a sprig of muguet and his godfather, the Duke of Wellington…May3 The muguet plant is highly toxic, however…you are supposed to wash your hands carefully after touching any portion of it…so it might be better to offer a loved one a pastry version…
May2…like these yummy little cakes topped with pseudo-muguets! And so we wish you a Bonne Fête du Muguet!

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