Updated: Oct 1
Lily of the Valley - France’s Official May Day Flower
La Fête du Muguet - A French Love Story
For centuries, on May 1st, Lily of the Valley has traditionally been gifted to loved ones on a public holiday known as “La Fête du Muguet.”
These delicate little flowers are absolutely everywhere at this time of the year in France - they fill the shelves in shops and perfume the air with their beautiful scent. They are believed to bring good fortune for the year ahead, and have long been considered a symbol of spring, renewal, good luck and of course… LOVE.
Offering Lily of the Valley in spring has been common since medieval times and to this day the French give Lily of the Valley to their friends and family as a token of love and appreciation. There are several stories about the origin of France's May Day customs with some dating back as far as the Renaissance and even in Celtic mythology, but exactly why is Lily of the Valley given on 1st May in France?
Some of history’s most famous royal family members chose to include these white, bell-shaped flowers in their wedding bouquets. Queen Victoria, Grace Kelly and Princess Astrid and are just some of the royal family members to grace the aisle with this flower. Notably our future Queen, Kate Middleton, carried a bouquet of Lily of the Valley for her wedding on 29th April, 2011.
But the tradition began much, much earlier….
Legend has it that the custom began on 1st May 1561, when King Charles IX was presented with a sprig of the plant’s sweetly scented, bell-shaped white flowers, by a knight named Louis de Girard de Maisonforte, who informed the King that the gift would bring him good luck and prosperity for the year ahead.
King Charles enjoyed the gift so much and wished to share the good fortune, and so decided to start a tradition. From that day forward, each year on the 1st May, he presented a bouquet of Lily of the Valley to each of the ladies of his court to bring more luck, and thus began the “Fête du Muguet.”
Symbol of Love
The idea found popularity and it soon became a tradition for men to offer a bouquet of Lily of the Valley to their sweetheart, fiancée or wife as a token of their love and devotion. They presented their gifts, in accordance with tradition, on the 1st May. In their absence, they sent romantic postcards featuring pictures of the flower accompanied by wishes of good luck and French people still practice this card-sending ritual today.
The practice later extended to new mothers who would receive visits on 1st May from family and friends bearing gifts of the fragrant white flower to fill the house as a good luck charm for the new baby.
The flowers were also made into button-hole sprigs for boys to wear to the “Bals du Muguet.” These annual balls were traditionally hosted throughout Europe and on these rare occasions, young people would be allowed to meet without their parents being present, indeed it was the only ball of the year where parents were banned from attending! The girls would wear white dresses and were allowed to meet potential boyfriends and a sweet Moselle wine known as the “Boisson de Mai” (May drink) would be served for their enjoyment. It was said that taking a sip on 1st May would guarantee happiness for the rest of the year.
The Story of Lily of The Valley and The Nightingale
Legend has it that the very first Lily of the Valley was in love with a nightingale. Every night, the nightingale would come to her garden and sing. However, the Lily of the Valley was shy and hid herself away from the bird, and so after a while, he grew lonely and flew away.
Alone in her garden, the Lily of the Valley waited in vain for the nightingale to return, but eventually she grew so sad that she stopped blooming. She started flowering again only after the nightingale reappeared the following May and her happiness was restored.
May’s Most Celebrated Flower
Over the centuries, Lily of the Valley has become one of May’s most celebrated flowers, and for good reason. Depending on climate, it typically blossoms in April and stays in bloom for most of May. Averaging around just 6 inches high, each plant is composed of a pair of leaves and a single stalk of bell-shaped flowers. Still, for what it lacks in size, Lily of the Valley rapidly makes up for in numbers, and when given ample shade, plants will form low thick masses of bright green colour displaying a carpet of delicate white flowers that have a sweet, jasmine-like scent.
A National Holiday in France
In modern-day France, the 1st May coincides with National Labour Day or the “Fête du Travail”. As a result, the “Fête du Muguet” has become a public holiday and in the days leading up to the event, Lily of the Valley is sold from road-side stands that pop up all over the country and while it’s normally forbidden to sell flowers on public streets, the ban is lifted on 1st May in honour of this long-standing tradition, - the general population celebrates, and schools, post offices, banks, and most businesses are closed - even the Louvre!
Celebrating May the French Way
The 1st May is a major two-in-one public holiday in France - it’s both May Day “La Fête du Muguet” and Labour Day “La Fête du Travail”. This heartfelt spring-time tradition of expressing gestures of love and appreciation together with a recognition of workers rights has now been tradition for over 450 years.
To this day, Lily of the Valley being offered to friends and loved ones continues to be celebrated with heartfelt devotion, and with plants and bouquets being widely available for sale across the country, it’s estimated that some 60 million “Brins de Muguet” (sprigs) are sold in France every year.
On this very special day, charities and labour organisations are allowed to sell bouquets of Lily of the Valley, tax-free on the street, as long as they respect certain regulations, and in France, anything that relates to an exemption from a tax of any kind is already a sign that the flower does indeed bring good fortune!
Today, and especially in more rural areas, families all over France get up early in the morning to go into the woods and pick the flowers in order to offer little bouquets to friends and loved ones, and for those who are superstitious, presenting a Lily of the Valley with 13 bells is considered to bring extra luck!
No matter its origins, May Day is a wonderful way to welcome the spring and to show appreciation to your family, friends, and colleagues as well as being the ultimate French token of love. We wish you all a happy (and lucky) “Fête du Muguet”!