The muguet tradition in France: Lily of the Valley sold on French street corners on May 1st
Sunday, April 30, 2006
le muguet (mew-geh) n.m.
: lily of the valley
Question: So what are the French doing today, the first of May, besides la grasse matinée?
Answer: Waving snow-white porte-bonheurs through the air and wishing each other good luck!
Along little cobblestone paths in the French hinterland, and at noisy intersections across the city, French vendeurs de muguet are taking over street curbs with buckets of lilies of the valley and shouting Le muguet du premier mai!--cashing in on today's national holiday, Labor Day (or La Fête du Travail).
On May 1st it is the custom to offer loved ones little bouquets of those sweet-scented, clochette-shaped flowers--in a gesture of friendship and in celebration of spring. It's la Fête du Muguet!
Today, commerçants are handing out the friendship flowers: the butcher (who should be off work, non?) is offering un brin de muguet to his faithful clients and some fancy boxed cakes have been seen leaving the chocolate shop with the little white flowers--les lys des vallées--tucked beneath the shiny ribbons that fasten the boxes.
"Ah, bon?" My mother-in-law replies over the phone, étonnée. "Shopkeepers here in Marseilles don't offer muguet!"
After a moment of silence, she quietly admits that no one has ever offered her a bouquet of muguet des bois.... But that doesn't stop my belle-maman from taking un petit brin to her 'little neighbor' downstairs, a custom she took up several years ago, to add cheer to the lonely foyer of another forgotten heart.
Woman selling lily of the valley at her tiny pop-up stand on the port of Bandol
Bonne Fête du Muguet! Good luck to you in the challenges you face--bon courage wherever on this globe you may call home
The following lyrics are from the beloved French folk singer George Brassens. Check out his music
Le premier mai c'est pas gai / The first of May is not cheerful
Je trime a dit le muguet / I slave away, said the lily of the valley
Dix fois plus que d'habitude / Ten times more than usual
Regrettable servitude / A regrettable encumbrance
Muguet, sois pas chicaneur / Muguet, don't be a quibbler
Car tu donnes du bonheur / Because you make people happy...
Brin d' muguet, tu es quelqu'un... / Little bouquet of lily, you are somebody...
faire la grasse matinée = "to do the fat morning" (to sleep in); un porte-bonheur (m) = lucky charm; vendeur, vendeuse de muguet = lily of the valley seller; Le muguet du premier mai! = The First of May's Lily of the Valley (buy some now)!; lys des vallées = lily of the valley, la clochette (f) = bell; commerçant(e) (adj) = businesslike; commerçant(e) (mf) = shopkeepers; Ah, bon? = oh, really?; étonné(e) = puzzled; le muguet des bois (m) = "lily of the woods" (woodruff); la belle-maman (f) = mother-in-law; un petit brin (m) = "a little blade" (a little bouquet); coo-toom (pronunciation for 'coutume' (f) = custom
AUDIO FILE--hear my son, Max, pronounce the word 'muguet':
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Floral Lily Of The Valley Luxury Hand Cream, order here
Lily of the Valley cup and saucer - Fine English bone china
Lily of The Valley by Yardley of London for Women Eau De Toilette Spray, order here.
6 Very Large, Fresh, Plump Lily of the Valley Bare Root Plants
People relaxing and children playing on the premier mai, or fête du travail in Bandol, France.
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Since I first saw and smelled muguet, I've loved it. It usually blooms out before May 1 here. But one year it was a little late and I took a sprig to my French teacher, not even thinking about the date -- which happened to be May 1. She began to cry with happiness! Then she explained that she grew up in France with this tradition that a gift of muguet on the first of May brings good luck. She had lived here for years and had not realized how much that tradition meant.I love serendipity! As it happens, mine is blooming today as we have had an unusually cool, late spring again this year. Du Bonheur!
Posted by: Judy Harris | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 01:24 PM
I love Lily of the Valley! I remember receiving a bouquet when we lived in Belgium. Such a nice custom!
I love the photo of the Larkspur too! Enjoy your day and I'm sure you are looking forward to spending time with Jules!
Posted by: Eileen deCamp | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 01:36 PM
Have a lovely May1! Enjoy the unique smell of lily of the valley and... may it bring you lots of luck!
Is wild muguet growing in the woods where you live? I loved going muguet-picking when I was a child.
Here on Reunion Island, an exotic variety of muguet grows, with green and white leaves. Unfortunately it doesn't smell at all! What a pity!
Posted by: Adeline | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 02:29 PM
Adeline, I have not seen it growing here, near Bandol, but I will plant the two brins, or sprigs, I bought today. They seem to be forest flowers... Will see if they like there new spot beneath the pines.
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 02:43 PM
I have always loved lily of the valley--where I grew up in Wisconsin they bloomed for my birthday (end of May). I always thought they bloomed especially for me. They are still my favorite flower---such perfect delicacy paired with the most delightful fragrance.
Posted by: Marilyn | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 03:29 PM
You have brought back wonderful memories from my childhood of Lilies of the Valley. It is a fragrance one never forgets. One of my friends had it growing in the family garden and we loved to smell and cut some to take into the house.
Posted by: Laura Isenstein | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 06:56 PM
Our dear Kristi,
What a beautiful post and pictures!
My memory sweeps back to how much my mom loved Muguet du Bois (it was her favorite perfume,too), and how my thoughtful hubby gave me sprigs when we were in Paris on May 1st.
It does not do well here in the West (regardless of how hard I've tried),and your gifted words have once again brought back happy remembrance (and divine fragrance)and wrapped my heart in smiles.
Love, Natalia XO
Posted by: Natalia | Wednesday, May 01, 2013 at 10:33 PM
Kristin, thanks for sharing this. I love les muguets and this lovely French custom. I've grown lily-of-the-valley before...they are so beautiful...but it's so hot in Georgia, I haven't been able to keep them over a few years. Have a lovely holiday!
Posted by: Rose Chandler Johnson | Thursday, May 02, 2013 at 12:30 AM
A lovely round:
White coral bells upon a slender stalk
Lilies of the valley deck my garden walk
Oh, don't you wish that you could hear them ring
That will only happen when the fairies sing
Posted by: Jan Hersh | Thursday, May 02, 2013 at 06:48 AM
When I was in Paris ,many years ago, we went to the flower market. I saw pips of lily of the valley plants in a box and this was in September.To be exact it was Sept.28th my birthday! I was so thrilled. When I was born,my Dad gave my Mother 12 stems of lily of the valley in 1929,Paid $12.00 for them.
When we arrived back to the hotel,our friend sent a envolope to me with an embroided spray of lily of the valley on the hankie. Wonderful memories from our delightful trip !
Posted by: Angela Vars | Friday, January 03, 2014 at 02:00 AM
I, too,love the Lily of the Valley. I did not know the May 1 connection. I have a lovely Lily of the Valley pin which my French Professor gave me many years ago. I shall wear it May 1.
Posted by: Vivian Langley | Tuesday, April 28, 2015 at 09:16 PM
I was a student from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) at the College de France, Place Marcellin Berthelot, Paris from 1966 to 1968. A lasting memory of my first day in Paris is that the streets were full of vendors of 'muguet'. Unforgettable.
Posted by: Dr. Rohan H Wickramasinghe | Sunday, April 29, 2018 at 11:06 AM
I remember this song from my childhood!! Thank you for the welcome to May reminder! Lily of the Valley is also my birthday flower and my favorite.
Posted by: Jackie W | Tuesday, May 01, 2018 at 02:06 PM
I always take pleasure in reading your posts and lately, I’ve made a habit of saving them for when I’m a bit tired or down, as I’m serving 2 years overseas, away from the familiar and comfortable... so I think back about my time in Aix and live that nostalgia vicariously through you (and now Tanja’s instagram too). This is my first comment ever, but I have often drafted what I’d like to chime in with on these posts or on Instagram, but never really did- oh, she’s so busy with everyone else’s comments or writing more or other life matters, I’d think.
Today, I want to write to you and comment on this post specifically because I want to say Thank You for appreciating life, sharing your wonderful musings, and being a comforting voice. I am fresh out of my first breakup, and overseas, and didn’t even think about the holiday. Instead I was consumed with sadness, grief, melancholy tinged memories- the usual process my friends tell me, but it’s new to me- and enduring waves of guilt for not being productive, catching up on work, or getting ahead on other matters, doing errands, what not, and then I happened to check insta and my email and saw this post. Even if it wasn’t the holiday, I putter around enough for me and for others where it is OK to languish today. It’s okay.
Also, serendipitously, I bought a pot of jasmine and a friend gifted me a pot of those sensitive-to-the-touch ferns. Looks like I got a thoughtful trinket and white flowers equivalent here on this day, an entire continent away from you! Thanks again for writing and sharing, I am grateful.
Posted by: Helen | Tuesday, May 01, 2018 at 02:07 PM
Another lovely song: Le Temps du Muguet, sung here by Mireille Mathieu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd89DQVT9Co. The tune is originally to a Russian song. If you look up "Moscow Nights" on You Tube, you'll find it sung in Russian by the Red Army Choir.
Posted by: Passante | Tuesday, May 01, 2018 at 02:20 PM
Beautiful celebration of Spring. Matches the photo of you and Jean-Paul during your Spring gaze days!🌞
Posted by: Margy | Tuesday, May 01, 2018 at 03:04 PM
Helen, I am deeply touched by your comment. Thank you for your service. I hope you will never again feel like you are not doing enough. And I do hope you managed to have a guilt-free, lovely and lackadaisical day. Sending you all best wishes and hugs. Xoxo, Kristi
Posted by: Kristin Espinasse | Tuesday, May 01, 2018 at 09:46 PM
God I hope you are still doing this.
What a great soul!
Bon Wishes, Rodney
Posted by: [email protected] | Friday, January 07, 2022 at 07:14 AM
This is such a beautiful post, great for language refresher but also for context, i did not know if this custom continued. My father's favorite flower.
Posted by: Karolyn | Thursday, March 24, 2022 at 09:52 PM