Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Muguet! Lily-of-the-the-valley in France

We are grateful to Cozette Griffin-Kremer for the following account of the use of lilies-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) on May Day in France.

Typical.  The French say it’s ‘only’ French, but the custom of giving lily-of-the-valley for May Day (1 May) is observed in Belgium and Switzerland as well.  On any May Day in France, stop to watch the passers-by carrying muguet to give to friends and family.  It may be a slightly gendered custom – boss to secretary, boyfriend to sweetheart – but also expresses subtle hierarchies of love and respect, such as a gift to mother-in-law, or from younger to older neighbours.  Unlike attitudes in Great Britain (see Roy Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995: 220-1), there seems to be no hesitation to bring it indoors where it is proudly displayed.

2007 DSC01771 in Muguet 2007 12 - CopieThe giving muguet for or around May Day was once florists’ most lucrative three-day period in the year, but it has been overtaken by Mother’s Day, and lily-of-the-valley is even termed ringard (outmoded) at times, especially as regards to the sending of greeting cards.  Still, e-cards with the flower, accompanied by the famous Jacques Lemarque song, ‘Muguet time has come again’, abound on line, much to the satisfaction of the main growers of the main growers in the Nantes area, who are said to produce about 80% of the sales and appreciate the publicity.  Other areas also contribute to the supplies, and the finest rootstocks by all opinion come from … Germany!

2011 037 in 2011 12On occasions there is even a bit of strife involved pitting professional florists against the street sellers, since this is the only day of the year when street selling is tolerated, within strict bounds.  Lily-of-the-valley sales are still important to the French Red Cross, and to the Communist Party.  Street vendors are many and varied, and may be folk who come in from the countryside to sell muguet along with some speciality, such as wild asparagus they gather to sell beside it.  They are no competition for the giant supermarket chains, but the omnipresence of the custom have caused lively reactions in areas like Brittany, where regional customs such as the May branch and pole have seen a revival.

And, if the May Day holiday sees many a muguet rally or festival, even the gigantic commercial fête in Compiègne, there is still a popular, traditional Lily-of-the-Valley Festival in Rambouillet in mid-month, where the finest floats in the parade may have up to 40,000 leaves and sprays of flowers attached to them.  Giving the muguet brings good luck and, in Rambouillet, it helps underwrite the participation of the float-making and musical associations in community life, as well as further the town hall’s strategies to attract tourists.

Images:  Rambouillet Lily-of-the-Valley Festival.