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La Fête du Muguet, or May Day

vintage Pentecost card

vintage Pentecost card from Germany, 1906

I like old-fashioned traditions,and the way they often make us slow down and smell the flowers… sometimes literally. Today is May Day, or Pentecost, when in days of old townspeople might have raised a Maypole and celebrated by decorating it, dancing around it (and of course eating and drinking!) Maypole traditions are said to represent perhaps a sort of pagan worship celebrating Mother Nature and even procreation. In some cultures girls and boys would dance around the pole in opposite directions with ribbons, making an intricate design, supposedly a dance of love. Spring does seem to be a lustful season, after all.

The tradition with which I became endeared was a French one, from my year of living in Nancy. Dating back to 1561 when King Charles IX received a bouquet of Lilies of the Valley as a gift on May 1, this gentle offering has become a country-wide pastime. Families and friends head to the forest early in the morning to pick flowers. When I was in Nancy, I saw roadside stands with little bouquets at the ready, tied with lovely little ribbons. They are given to loved ones, or even to friends and family, as a sign of affection. My mom and I remember this tradition most affectionately, sending greetings to each other wherever we are in the world. She once pestered a number of florists in the Okanagan to find some Lilies of the Valley to send me at my office! I planted some in my garden so I can take a picture every year. This year they have even managed to bloom as of today 🙂

lily-of-the-valley_May Day

May 1 is now also called Labour Day in France, and much of Europe, and it celebrates workers’ rights. I think that follows along nicely; it’s a good thing to show affection for someone’s hard work.

So, Happy May Day! Here’s hoping someone makes you smile today, and that you have time to smell the flowers.

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Happy May Day!

lily-of-the-valley_May Day

 

I wish I could say the Lilies of the Valley in my yard look this beautiful… I have the sunshine but the stems are just up, no blossoms yet. Still, I rejoice in their effort, their enthusiasm and when the blossoms arrive, the fragrance!

Lilies of the Valley are an ancient woodland flower, and have signified humility in religious works for centuries. Personally, they make me think of fairies and other magical things. It’s not surprising that they are a prized flower in a bride’s wedding bouquet – Grace Kelly had them when she became a Princess, and so did Kate Middleton when she became Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

Princess Katherine with bouquet

May Day is a phrase used by sailors to signify distress, and sometimes with the hectic nature of spring I admit that rings true. But there is another history to this day… in much of the Northern Hemisphere the first day of May was long a holiday celebrating spring. This tradition goes back to Celtic traditions of Beltane, which sat opposite the first of November, heralding the start of the autumn. As such, it was a joyous pagan celebration involving dancing, flowers and cake. (what’s not to like about that?!)

May 1 also became International Workers’ Day in Europe – was this perhaps in connection with the Christian traditions overtaking pagan rituals and more of a work ethic entering the collective psyche? I wonder…

maypole danceMy memories of May Day come in part from stories my Mom told of wrapping ribbons around the Maypole as a girl (perhaps a bit pagan, but awfully romantic, don’t you think?). Then when I lived in France I learned that a tribute on this special day was to give “muguets”, Lily of the Valley. Their pungent fragrance is so typical of spring, sensual and full of life. They are dainty blossoms on sturdy stems, as if to say, “We may look delicate, but we have the strength to carry on through storms and wind until the sun prevails.”

So, on this beautiful day, where I am surrounded by sun and blooming flowers and fresh-cut grass and bouncing animals, I wish you a Happy May Day. Here’s to the sun prevailing.

 

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