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May 1: Who do French people give muguet to and does it still matter?

We speak to young people in France about the tradition of giving lily of the valley flowers on Labour Day, and how it can be hierarchical between grandmothers, mothers and daughters

Lily of the valley

Offering lilies of the valley is a custom among French people on May 1 Pic: Tatyana Mi / Shutterstock

France celebrates Labour Day (Fête du Travail) on May 1 each year. While traditionally associated with the country’s workers, another tradition in which people give lily of the valley flowers (muguet in French), has bloomed alongside it. 

These two traditions have different roots, but became synonymous with May 1 over the course of the 20th century. 

Read more: A brief history of the May 1 holiday in France 

People in France spend millions on muguets each year, and thousands of roadside stalls pop up to offer sprigs. Two women in their 20s who spoke to The Connexion have said that they enjoy the tradition. 

“This is a deep-rooted tradition in my family,” said Camille Becchetti, 27, a journalist for French channel France Télévisions who grew up in Marseille. 

She said her family ran a hierarchical system in which her grandmother was offered the biggest vase of lilies of the valley, her mother a smaller vase and herself a single sprig of lily.

Ms Becchetti said her father would typically take his brother on a shopping spree for the flowers on May 1, in an effort to keep the family tradition alive. 

Clara Echarri, 26, another radio journalist who grew up in southwestern France, said she has fond memories of the tradition.

“My parents have always offered them to me for as long as I can remember,” she said. 

She said both her parents would make a wish when offering her the flower, with her mother saying that it was part of a lucky charm gesture. Offering the flowers has long been associated with imparting luck on the receiver. 

“I have always heard the wish happens if the lily of the valley dies,” said Ms Echarri, aware of the absurdity of this as the flower will always eventually wither. 

Along with receiving the flower from her parents, she also used to give one back to them when she was young, picking one from their garden. She said her parents would go out and buy the flowers from a vendor anyway, even if they grew in their garden. 

Her mother is planning on sending her a flower to her in Paris this Sunday, but Ms Echarri  declined to say what her wish will be, fearing it would not happen if disclosed. 

Read more: French producers struggle to slow lily of valley bloom ahead of May 1

A tradition that is losing meaning and popularity?

Ms Echarri and Ms Becchetti both said they would take more offence at their partners forgetting to buy roses for Valentine's Day than lilies of the valley for Labour Day, signalling the lesser importance the custom carries among French people.

Nevertheless, the fact that they both participate in the tradition is perhaps unusual for people of their generation. 

The Connexion spoke to a handful of other people of a similar age who said it was not that much of a tradition for them, with others saying they do not pay it much attention.

One person was grateful to be asked about his thoughts as he had forgotten about it, despite being strongly advised by his girlfriend a few days before to offer her a lily of the valley. 

The tradition seems to be of most relevance among generations born after World War Two and to a lesser extent by the following generation. Conversations with people born in the 90s suggest the tradition is fading.

Ms Echarri said that she noticed less street-peddlers last year than in previous years, although she said this could probably be attributed to the Covid period. 

Both Ms Echarri and Becchetti said their fathers worked on May 1, another unusual aspect on a day that is a public holiday in France

Related articles

French producers struggle to slow lily of valley bloom ahead of May 1

A brief history of the May 1 holiday in France

French pill fills air with muguet scent

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