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.
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.