May Day

I find it sad that May Day isn’t really A Thing in the UK.  Even the early-in-the-month Bank Holiday is relegated to the first Monday of May, diluting its significance to that of merely a day off.

When we lived in France it was far more important.  It was a day off work of course, because it was the all important Fête du Travail. No shops (apart from bakers and neighbourhood shops, just for a few hours).  No garages. No newspapers.  Only essential workers turned up for duty.

But the streets were quite busy, because May 1st is the day when everyone offers one another a traditional token of friendship and esteem – a sprig or two of lily of the valley, prettily presented.  In every village, every town, you’ll find people on street corners, outside the bakers’, at the cross roads, selling the flowers that they probably spent the previous day gathering and tying into pretty posies.  It’s the one day of the year when anyone who wants to can sell on the streets without a licence – so long as they’re selling only lilies of the valley (muguets).

I used to ask people the origin of this tradition.  Nobody knew.  ‘It’s simply to offer bonheur’, they shrugged.  But my friend Léonce had a couple of stories to tell.  We all know that lilies of the valley have a strong and lovely perfume.  The nightingale notices and smells them coming into flower on the first day of May, and this gives him the energy he needs to get into the woods and begin courting, nest building, and singing.  And those bell shaped flowers?  Well, they apparently surround the Heavenly Gates, where they come in handy by tinkling musically to announce the arrival of another soul from earth.

Lilies of the Valley in our garden in France, one rainy May Day.

Just to prove though that at least one place in England celebrates May Day:  here are the choristers of Magdalen College Oxford greeting the day at 6.00 a.m. as they do every year on this date.  And the whole of Oxford joins in the fun.

37 thoughts on “May Day”

  1. May is my favourite month and also the month I was born in.
    What a lovely French custom! And I’d happily give you a sprig of lily of the valley except ours in the garden are nowhere remotely near flowering!

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    1. I’ve never seen it ‘for real’ either. But do you remember they used to introduce the morning news on the ‘Home Service’ with the choristers singing on May Day?

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  2. A charming tradition. One of my very favourite flowers probably because I have never succeeded in growing them! Have you been there for this 6 a.m. tradition Margaret…is this your film? Happy May Day!

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  3. Sadly the choristers in Oxford are inaudible (or were the 3 years I went to celebrate) drowned out by the noise on the ground of cheerful students taking to their punts in the river or just generally enjoying themselves!

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    1. Until I saw that video, I never realised it was such a party. I imagiined an austere, misty early morning with the voices of the choristers rivalling those of the birds’ morning chorus.

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  4. Oh that’s all so lovely. Just in the middle of ‘Wolf Hall’ again and Cardinal Wolsey is still hanging on. I know he wouldn’t have heard this particular hymn, but I see Magdalen College claim the tradition dates from the 15th century when Thomas Wolsey was in attendance. Ah the long threads of history and tradition.

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      1. Mmm – it has struck me again how utterly miscast I think Mark Rylance was. Mantel’s Cromwell is a beefy bruiser like the famous portrait, but at the same time she makes him really quite charming and neither of these qualities came across in the TV version in my, ordinary person’s, opinion.

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      2. Oh, how odd that we see it so differently! Yes, I know he’s wrong physically, but that didn’t bother me as much as Henry VIII being wrong, as he’s not a ‘household figure’ in that sense. And for me, Rylance interpreted the character as portrayed in the book quite faithfully. Ah well!

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  5. Exactly right Margaret. Corrèze is quiet today although as it’s lunchtime and a beautiful day I can hear some family lunches taking place in gardens. We had some young ladies outside the boulangerie this morning with pretty baskets full of lily of the valley.

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  6. I love Leonce’s stories! And I’m sure they are true. Our lilies of the valley will bloom sometime in May . . . but not for a bit. Happy May Day to you–I’m sending you a virtual posey!

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  7. I’m not as enchanted as you are; I’m highly allergic to the ‘muguets’…. but it’s a lovely tradition all the same 🙂
    Year after year I pull mine out of the grounds, they are persistent once they’re installed…. a bit like the weeds! 😉

    In Switzerland it’s NOT a holiday in all places either. In Berne where HH worked for 3+yrs, it’s a ‘normal’ working day. In Zurich, where he works now, it’s a holiday… In other cantons it’s a half-day holiday, although if that one falls not to the middle of the week ppl tend to make it a bridge holiday!

    Love the Oxford video – didn’t know that either!
    Oh, and in Zurich, a long, and very old tradition also features on the Lindenhofplatz in central Zurich: The Singstudenten (the choral students), an association of students who love singing, founded in 1849…. They ‘sing in’ the month of May in the night of April 30 to May 1st. I didn’t know that until, one day, as a young woman living in the ‘Niederdorf’, one of the students ‘invited’ me to come to the LIndenhofplatz for a surprise. At those times one could accept these invites w/o risking to be killed or raped and there as much (not terribly good) singing, laughing, joking and DRINKING…..
    Thanks for this reminder. Gave me joy

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    1. So many traditions for May Day. But I’m sorry you’re allergic to lilies of the valley – I really love them, and they can spread all they like as far as I’m concerned. And your film – we haven’t watched it all yet, but it’s charming, and yes – I can more or less get on with the patois, having lived among it for so long. Thank you!

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  8. Good for Oxford! And what a turnout 🙂 🙂 It was surprisingly quiet here, and I’d forgotten about a tradition of having roadside scarecrows of workers, which we missed because we went by train to our Portuguese lesson. Our teacher has her own language school and has been busy with exams for the last fortnight, so we were summoned back to take up the task, despite the holiday. ::(

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    1. Oooh. You shouldn’t have had to work on Workers’ Day! Yes, I was astonished by the Oxford turnout. And I don’t think even one of them was a scarecrow 😉

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  9. Thanks for the video from Oxford; what a crowd so early in the morning! I do love these traditions and hope that they keep going into the future. The posies of Lily of the Valley sound gorgeous!

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  10. Yes, a friend and I were only talking about our lack of a true May Day here the other day….. I recall Maypole dancing as a child….but I don’t know what the origins of that were

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  11. Lily of the Valley takes me straight back to childhood. It always grew for my mother but I’ve never succeeded with it. Such charming traditions you’ve described, Margaret. And I agree with you – the early May Bank Holiday is not at all the same, merely a welcomed day off for the workforce.

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    1. You’re not the first person to say that LdV are difficult, but *blushes modestly* it always seems to grow like a weed here. And I don’t like it that Bank Holidays are always on Monday, even if it IS convenient.

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  12. Well that video is really moving – a good counter to all the upset! I have always loved lily of the valley so I love hearing about that French custom and the notion that the scent inspires the nightingale to sing! Labour Day has somewhat displaced flowers and maypole dancing! And here its autumn anyways …

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  13. Great post. ‘The nightingale notices’ sounds like the title of a book. My sweetheart took part in a soil ceremony on May 1st, scattering soil to the north, south, east and west. It sounded rather strange to me, so this post is timely. Better some celebration than nothing!

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  14. Intrigued by the muguet sellers on our first Parisian May Day I looked up the history of the custom. Although I’m sure there are older connections, one story dates back to May 1 1560 when Charles I was presented with a sprig of muguet by the knight Louis de Girard de Maisonforte, appreciated the gesture and henceforth presented lily of the valley to the ladies of his court each May Day. The where and why of the knight’s posy leads back to several alternative stories which I summarised in this 2015 post: https://beyondthewindowbox.wordpress.com/2015/05/02/may-day/

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