The 1st of May has been celebrated in Europe for a very long time. It was celebrated in ancient Rome as the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers, plants and fertility. The festival had a licentious character which continued into the various pagan festivals that occurred across Europe. Particularly, in Germany, these celebrations were Christianised to honour St. Walpurgia who brought Christianity to Germany. Some of the older traditional May Day celebrations included the crowning of a May Queen, dancing around a May pole and the gathering of spring flowers for decoration.
In France the symbol of May 1st is lily-of-the-valley (muguet). This usage dates back to 1561, when King Charles IX, then aged 10, gave a sprig of this flower as a good luck charm to the ladies of his court. The custom was revived around 1900 and today giving lily-of-the-valley to friends and family is a tradition. The government allows these flowers to be sold tax-free, so it is a popular way for charities and other groups to raise money. The flowers must be gathered in the wild, not bought and then re-sold for this tax benefit to be allowed. The wild rose is a secondary symbol of May Day and may also be collected.
May 1st as Labour Day
May Day has another side to it. It is also known as La fête du travail – Labour Day – and is a public holiday when all stores and even public transit may be closed. In France all workers except the most essential have an absolute right by law to not work on this day.
This connection with the labour movement began in 1889 at a meeting of the Second International in Paris. The Second International was an organization of socialist and labour parties. Four workers had been shot and killed by police on May 4th, 1886 in Chicago while demonstrating for the eight-hour week. Known as the Haymarket Affair, it became a cause célèbre among labour movements, and along with other disturbances during a period of great social unrest, led to the declaring of May 1st as International Labour Day. In 1936, wide-spread demonstrations on May 1st led to the formation of the first centre-left government in France which quickly introduced the 40-hour work week, two weeks paid holiday and the right to form a union.
Since then the day has been a consistent focus of labour activity and demonstrations. In France labour unions organize marches, demonstration and parades across the country on this day to re-enforce their commitment to improved rights for workers.
The Catholic Church has declared May 1st as Saint Joseph the Worker Day (Saint Joseph’s feast day is on March 19th). In the May Day aspect, St. Joseph, the wife of Mary, is the patron Saint of Workers. Mary herself is also strongly associated with May Day in the celebration of its Spring Festival aspect. The Pope always makes a speech on May Day in support of the rights of workers and the fair value of labour.
When is May Day?
May Day in France always falls on May 1st. If it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it is also observed on that Saturday or Sunday, and there wouldn’t be a Bank Holiday that year.