Monday, May 2, 2011

May Day... marches and 'merchandise'.

May Day again, associated with International Workers' Day and here in France of course synonymous with campaigning and demonstrations on the part of political and social groups and above all trade unions. In Paris in the 1890's participants in May Day processions would wear a red triangular lapel decoration - a boutonnière - symbolizing the demand for a division of the day into 3 equal parts; work, leisure and sleep. The demand for an 8-hour working day was finally met in April 1919, and the first of May - Fête du Travail - became one of the many French public holidays. As the French like to extend these breaks to envelope the weekend too this gives rise to several long weekends - 'des ponts' - that manage to eat up the working routine during the month of May and can sometimes considerably hamper activity.
May Day marches.

May poles, May Queens and Morris dancing are some of the better-known customs in the UK, mostly dating back to Pagan times and finally incorporated into Christian celebrations of May Day. In France the celebratory gesture involves the offering of sprigs of Lily-of-the-valley - Muguet -to those whom we are fond of. This custom finds its origins in the 16th century when Charles IX was given a bouquet of Lily-of-the-valley as a lucky portent - un porte-bonheur - and then in turn gave sprigs of the flower to all the ladies of the court. The French monarchy was of course to be abolished under the Revolution at the end of the 18th century however the traditional May Day Lily-of-the-valley sprig has survived to this day. The shops may be shut, yet the cities, towns and villages are awash with individuals seated at trestle tables, with baby baths full of little muguet bouquets to sell to any passers-by. This enthusiasm is not simply from the pleasure of selling such dainty, fragrant merchandise, but also due to the fact that the government allows these vendors to operate free from tax. However, for all its simple, unassuming elegance, the Lily-of-the-valley can be capricious in its blooming and each year there is a certain fear that the flower buds will remain tightly shut for the big day. As a spring flower, blooming depends on the weather, of course. Not surprisingly this year the Lily-of-the-valley's green spear-like leaves appeared early and many of the plants were already fully in bloom well before the first of May. More resourceful individuals have been trying to ply their wares for a moment now, desperate to see their floral treasures bloom, wilt and fade prematurely and their money-making schemes likewise.
Folklore would have it that this perennial plant is able to ward off evil spirits and was a flower of fairies - its tiny bells being used as cups. The white blooms (although pink-tinged varieties also exist) look as if they are weeping and indeed the bells are said to represent Eve's tears on her banishment from Eden. The Convallaria majalis 'belonging to May' is in fact known by several names - Our Lady's Tears, May Bells, and finally Ladder-to-Heaven. The flower often is said to symbolize a return to happiness, a sign of Christ's second coming while for the Victorians Lily-in-the-valley represented chastity and humility, and sent by an admirer would convey the message 'You make my life complete'. Perhaps with that in mind Kate Middleton's wedding bouquet bore Lily-of-the-valley amongst other white flowers... However, as is the case for many beautiful flowers, the seemingly innocent and pure muguet has a darker side - it is toxic! Ingestion of any part of the plant proves dangerous as it dramatically weakens the heart beat (it was used to the First World War to help reduce blood pressure of gas victims).
Here's a link to the famous French song Le Temps du Muguet, here sung by Danièlle Darrieux.

The most striking aspect of this magical flower is, of course, its incredible scent - so strong for such a small, delicate flower. Naturally, Lily-of-the-valley is used as a base for many perfumes - Christian Dior's Diorissimo is but one of these. However, for me the best place to smell this flower is in the woods or in the undergrowth of our unruly garden!