May Day in France

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 Christianized to honor St. Walpurgis, who brought Christianity to Germany. Some of the older traditional May Day celebrations included the crowning of a May Queen, dancing around a Maypole, 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 not to work on this day.

This connection with the labor movement began in 1889 at a meeting of the Second International in Paris. The Second International was an organization of socialist and labor parties. Four workers had been shot and killed by police on May 4th, 1886, in Chicago while demonstrating for the eight-hour workweek. Known as the Haymarket Affair, it became a cause célèbre among labor 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, widespread demonstrations on May 1st led to the formation of the first center-left government in France, which quickly introduced the 40-hour workweek, two weeks of paid holiday, and the right to form a union.

Since then, the day has been a consistent focus of labor activity and demonstrations. In France, labor unions organize marches, demonstrations, and parades across the country on this day to reinforce 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 husband 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 labor.

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 day, and there wouldn’t be a bank holiday that year.