This article was first published in the May/June 2017 edition of the BCT’s Small Talk magazine.

by Alison Plater, BCT Information Coordinator

At the end of April each year, in the shops and streets of Belgium and France, it is usual to see people buying lily-of-the-valley (muguet in French, meiklokjes in Dutch) and 1 May is one of the best days of the year for florists’ sales in France. But how has this tradition come about and why does is symbolise Labour Day?

This sweet-scented flower is believed to bring good luck, heralding the arrival of warmer days. Its little white bell flowers bloom around 1 May. The tradition of offering the flower originated in France but it is widely practised in Belgium, Switzerland and Andorra.

The plant is native to Japan and was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages. Celtic tribes believed that lily-of-the-valley brought good luck and the flower has always symbolised the arrival of spring. It was part of ancient pagan customs celebrating the passage from the season of dark to the season of light, at the festival of Beltane on 1 May.

Offering lily-of-the-valley for good luck became official in 1561 when King Charles IX of France was given a sprig to bring him luck. He was enchanted by the idea and decided to give the flower every year to the ladies of his court.

The association of lily-of-the-valley with Labour Day is the result of several events. The celebration of Labour Day on 1 May originates from the struggles of the labour movement at the end of the 19th century. In Chicago, the newly-founded workers’ unions called a strike, demanding an eight-hour work day, on 1 May 1886. The date was chosen as it was the end of financial year for most businesses. The strike continued and on 4 May a bomb thrown at the police during a protest caused ten deaths, seven of which were policemen.

In 1889 in Paris, at an International Socialist meeting to mark the centenary of the French Revolution, 1 May was designated the International Worker’s Day, in memory of those who died in Chicago in pursuit of an eight-hour work day.

From 1890, workers protesting for workers’ rights wore a triangle, a symbol of their three goals: eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of leisure. A wild rose gradually replaced the triangle when, in 1891, a demonstration in the north of France turned into a riot. The police fired on the crowd, killing a young woman wearing a wild rose. The wild rose became the symbol of 1 May, preceding the lily-of-the-valley.

It took until 1919 for a law to be passed in France limiting the work day to eight hours. To celebrate this event, the French Parliament declared 1 May a national holiday. The day was officially named the Fête du travail in 1941 and in the years between, 1 May had become the day when workers gathered together to demonstrate. Some wore lily-of-the-valley in their button-holes, with the white flower eventually replacing the wild rose. Lily-of-the-valley was first sold in 1932 in Nantes and became widely available in France around 1936.

Today, Belgium is one of the many countries in Europe to mark Workers’ Day or Labour Day. The first of May is also celebrated in South Africa, Latin America, Russia and Japan. In the United Kingdom, Labour Day is always the first Monday of May while in the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September. This date was decided by former American President, Grover Cleveland, who wanted to avoid the day’s association with the 1 May deaths in Chicago.

Many school or work canteens now follow the tradition of giving lily-of-the-valley on or around 1 May. On this day, the flower is sold outside Belgian florist shops and on French streets, where budding sales people take advantage of the one day of the year when it is legal for individuals to sell wild lily-of-the-valley.

This sweet-scented flower is said to bring joy and luck for the whole year. According to the language of flowers, lily-of-the-valley also signifies the return of happiness. This is why we continue to offer sprigs, small bouquets and pots of muguet/meiklokjes each year to the people we love.

Make your own lily-of-the-valley bouquet

Need: green pipe cleaners, white polystyrene twists, green card or paper, plastic-coated metal twist ties, gift wrap (optional)

Pierce holes in the centre of the white polystyrene twists, thread pipe cleaners through. Make a small twist at the top of a pipe cleaner to secure ‘flowers’.
Draw two large leaf shapes on green card or paper, cut out and hold around the pipe cleaner stems. Fix in place with a twist tie (or staple). Wrap the bouquet in gift paper, if desired. Present your everlasting bouquet for everlasting luck!