Life of a French family – The First of May and the “Lily of the Valley” tradition

Life of a French family – The First of May and the “Lily of the Valley” tradition

When I was a kid, on the 1st of May, I would go sell the Lily of the valley in the streets of my home town, with my little brother. For us, this was a game: we would test our ability to be good salesmen and gather some pocket money, while having fun.

In France, this was -and still is- the only day of the year when anyone can sell in the streets with no specific tax or permit.

Every year, the ritual was the same. In the garden of my grand-mother, there was a piece of land planted with some Lily of the Valley, producing delicate and perfumed bells. The day before the First of May, Grandma would help us pick it and then, we would gather in her small kitchen and start creating hundreds of tiny bouquets with some twine she would pull from her magic cupboard (there were many things in there which always intrigued us!). We would then place all the bouquets in huge wicker baskets and we would create a price board.

The day after, early in the morning, we would go find a nice spot in town, the one not taken already which would give us the best traffic. This special sale would often give us opportunity to connect with people and discuss and, as I said, we would really have fun.

At the end of the day, we would split the gains and buy Grandma a gift in sign of gratitude.

Then we grew up, life brought us far away from Grandma’s garden and yet this tradition is still alive in our hearts. Every First of May, I think about my Grandma and my brother and there is Lily in the valley at home. The only smell of it brings me back to Grandma’s kitchen. I love the fact that a smell of something can make memories live again. This is my “Madeleine de Proust”.

Memories, traditions, family rituals are part of what I would like to pass on to my girls, especially knowing that we live in a foreign country, so far away from home.


In France, the First of May is strongly anchored in the collective memory, for two reasons.

First, this is the day when you offer to the people you love -friends & family- some Lily of the Valley as a symbol of Spring and happiness, as a “Porte-Bonheur”. This tradition dates from the XVIe century: In 1561, King Charles IX formalized this custom by deciding to offer each year on May 1st some Lily of the Valley to all the ladies of the court.

Later, offering Lily of the Valley will only become popular on May 1st 1900, when, at a party organized by the Parisian fashion designers, all the women received a Lily of the Valley. Christian Dior was actually a big fan of this delicate flower.

In the past, there were some pretty traditions such as "Lily of the Valley” balls where the girls were dressed in white and where the young people bloomed their buttonhole with a sprig of Lily of the Valley. It was the only ball of the year where young people could meet without their parents.


May 1st is also Labor Day, a more recent tradition since it dates from May 1st 1886 and commemorates a strike in Chicago by American workers, claiming the 8-hour work day.

Following a meeting in Paris in July 1889, May 1st  became a bank holiday and a commemorative day for all workers.

 Joyeux 1er Mai!