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May 1: Origins of the springtime day for worker rights

France is marking the traditional Fête du Travail today (May 1), which has held a symbolic space in the calendar for centuries, and been an official working holiday since 1947.

Historically, May 1 has many meanings, one of which dates back to medieval times and beyond, when it was celebrated as the end of winter, and the arrival of brighter days. Some countries, including Germany and the UK, still have the tradition of May Day dancing, often around a Maypole.

The springtime flower lily of the valley (muguet in French) is also often associated with the date, and was thought to bring good luck. In Celtic times, the flower was seen as a symbol of warmer days and part of the summertime pagan festival of Beltane.

In France, on May 1 1561, the story goes that the French king Charles IX received a bouquet for luck. The king decided to spread the message, and started the May 1 tradition of giving lily of the valley flowers to each of the women at court.

The flower would later become the symbol of the day.

Workers’ rights

More recently, May 1 has been associated with workers’ rights.

This is originally thought to date back to 1886, when trade union protesters in Chicago, USA, mounted a march, demanding an eight-hour workday. They chose May 1 as it was traditionally known as “moving day” - the day on which American companies usually finished their accounting for the year.

Over 400,000 workers went on strike, and the protest turned violent and deadly after police clashes. A bomb exploded, and dozens died.

Three years later, during a conference commemorating 100 years since the French Revolution, workers in France would begin an annual tradition of marching for the same rights, in honour of Chicago. From 1889-90, protesters wore a red triangle, which symbolised their three demands: eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of leisure.

The red triangle would later be replaced by a wild rose flower, after a female protester wearing such a flower was killed in an 1891 march. Later, this would in turn be replaced by the lily of the valley flower.

Workers in France had to wait 30 years for their demands to be heard. It was only in 1919 that the Senate ratified a law limiting the working day to eight hours.

The date of May 1 continued to be seen as a day of worker protests, with movements and marches planned every year, especially by worker unions. Slowly, more rights began to be granted, such as the 40-hour work week, paid holidays, and the right to join a union.

Yet, it was only in 1941, under the Vichy regime, that May 1 became an official holiday, where workers had the day off but were still paid - but the government would instead choose April 24 as its official “Fête du Travail et de la Concorde Sociale (Work and Social Harmony)”.

Later, the Liberation government would confirm May 1 as a paid day off, and move the “Fête du Travail” element to this date too.

Now, unions in France - especially the major ones, such as the CGT, CFDT, FO, and CFTC - habitually mount marches on this day.

Some activists sell lily of the valley too, with individuals legally permitted to sell flowers in public on this day (usually selling flowers in public is prohibited by law for all except professional florists).

There are still some rules on May 1: in Paris, sellers are not allowed to be within 40 metres of a professional florist - and some communes have rules against selling by shouting, or setting up stalls.

Worldwide date

Throughout Europe - and much of the world - May 1 is celebrated as a paid day off associated with workers’ rights and the end of winter, except in Switzerland and the Netherlands. It is celebrated in South America, South Africa, Russia, and even Japan.

In the UK, the “bank holiday” moves to the Monday of the same week, and in the US, a similar “Labor Day” is celebrated, but on September 1.

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