|Lilies of the Valley|
May Day in France is a national holiday: children don’t go to school and most employees get the day off; the post office and banks don’t operate; supermarkets and many businesses are closed. It’s a day to commemorate workers’ rights. In fact, May Day as a workers’ holiday started in the United States during the latter decades of the 19th century, when workers organized to demand an 8-hour work day, which actually didn’t go into effect in the U.S. until 1938 (whereas in France, workers obtained the 8-hour day in 1919). While May Day is celebrated throughout most of Europe, contemporary Americans have no collective recollection of the holiday’s history because of its suppression in the United States since the mid-1950’s, when the Cold War dominated American political ideology: the United States associated May Day with communism since the Soviet Union celebrated workers on May 1. The American myopic view of May Day as a communist holiday ignores its ancient pre-labor roots.
The first of May prevailed as a pagan festival before Christianity conquered Europe. The Celtic holiday of Beltane celebrated fertility, fire, and the beginning of summer on May 1, and the Vikings observed the evening of April 30 lighting bonfires to scare evil spirits and witches, and to hasten the fertility of spring and summer. This festival became known in the Germanic-speaking and Eastern European countries as Walpurgis Night, named after a nun named Walpurgis in Germany who spoke out against witchcraft and sorcery. She was canonized on May 1, 779 – thus transforming pagan festivities into a saint’s day.
And then, of course, there was the Maypole dance and the May Queen (or Queen of the May) derived from old Anglo-Saxon celebrations, which, like the others, were fertility festivals.
I remember when my first grade class did a Maypole dance. The girls wore pastel frocks; the boys dressed in pants and white shirts. We wove around the pole, each holding a long strip of light-colored crepe-paper, ducking in and out of the ribbons as the boys circled in one direction and the girls in the other until the pole had been laced with the crepe-paper and we could dance no more. In the fall of that school year we six-year-olds had to remember to add “under God” to the already-difficult-to-say Pledge of Allegiance - which transformed the incomprehensible words (what’s a “witch-it stands”?) into a public prayer - to make sure we weren’t godless communists. After that spring, the Maypole dance wasn’t performed in school. It had become a symbol of May Day, which had become a symbol of communism.
But here in France, May Day is the workers’ day (La Fête du Travail), and it is signified by the lily of the valley (muguet) because, so it is said, King Charles IX was given lilies of the valley on May 1, 1561, and since he liked the flowers, he presented them to the ladies of his court every May 1 from then on. Thus the other moniker for May Day is La Fête du Muguet - and on May 1 anyone can sell lilies of the valley without incurring retail regulations or paying taxes.
Yesterday when I went to Carrefour, the hypermarché (supermarket-department-store), displays of lilies of the valley stood in the front of the store. Nearby, a prominent sign noted that the store would be closed on May 1. I bought a small potted plant of muguets. Then at the check-out counter after I had paid for my groceries, the cashier handed me the receipt – and a delicate fragrant muguet sprig tucked into a flower vial.
This May Day in France has resurrected primary school memories from Poughkeepsie: the Maypole Dance, the transformation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the American association of May Day with communism, and a song from childhood: “White coral bells, upon a slender stalk...”
|Muguet sprig - Lilies of the Valley|