Why do the French sell Lily of the Valley on May 1?

Pots of lily of the valley

In the final days of April, farmers markets and flower stalls in France are overtaken by tiny bouquets of lily of the valley, known as muguet in French. They are traditionally sold on May 1, in honor of the Fête du Travail, the French Labor Day. Protesting is a national sport in France, so while May 1 is a national holiday, it’s not always used as a day of rest. Instead, May Day is traditionally marked by large-scale demonstrations, or manifestations.

Fête du Travail in France

More formally known as the International Workers’ Day, May 1 has been a national holiday in France since 1941, following decades of protests in favor of better working conditions, including an eight hour work day in France. (The French didn’t get their infamous 35 hour work week until the year 2000.) You can read more about the history of International Workers’ Day in France here.

But back to the flowers. Every year, tens of millions of lily of the valley plants and bouquets are sold in France on May 1. But how did muguets come to be associated with the Fête du Travail?

Lily of the valley plant in a shop window.
Lily of the valley plant in a shop window. (Credit: Caitlin Shetterly)

History of the Fête du Muguet

The answer is one of coincidence, not causation. Catherine de’ Medici’s son, Charles IX, who ruled as King of France between the ages of 10 and 23 before his sudden death, is responsible for this tradition. After being given a sprig of lily of the valley (un brin de muguet) as a good luck charm in the spring of 1561, he made it a habit of gifting bouquets of muguet to ladies of the court every year on May 1. (Charles IX had a violent and bloody reign, but this is the one gentler legacy he left behind.) May Day soon came to be known in France as Fête du Muguet, and protesters began wearing the flower on their lapel during Labor Day demonstrations.

Can vendors sell lily of the valley without a permit on May 1?

It is generally forbidden for vendors in France to sell flowers on public streets. But one of the reasons why you will see so many stands selling lily of the valley on May 1 is that there is a special exemption that allows vendors to sell them during the holiday without a license, and tax-free, as long as the flowers are foraged or homegrown. Since lily of the valley is an invasive species that reproduces rapidly, it is well-suited for ethical foraging. Vendors are only allowed to sell lily of the valley, and must stay at least 40 meters from the nearest florist.

Cards with muguets on them
Cards reading, “I bring luck.” (Credit: Caitlin Shetterly)

Lily of the valley is often gifted to women by their significant other, as a romantic token of affection. While reports show that the tradition has started to decline in recent years, anyone visiting France this weekend will be hard-pressed to believe it.

Even if you don’t get a sprig of the sweet smelling flowers, there are cards, trinkets, and even chocolate replicas of lily of the valley all over France at the start of May. So treat yourself to a bouquet, tuck it in your lapel, and spend the rest of the day in sweet-smelling solidarity with the French workforce.

Chocolate lily of the valley from Chapon Chocolatier
Chocolate lily of the valley from Chapon Chocolatier. (Credit: Caitlin Shetterly)

Catherine Rickman is a writer and professional francophile who has lived in Paris, New York, and Berlin. She is currently somewhere in Brooklyn with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other, and you can follow her adventures on Instagram @catrickman.

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