Unlike their American cousins and friends, the French do not generally spend their labor day worrying about whether it is still acceptable to wear white or throw everything possible on the BBQ. No, this is one holiday the French take very very seriously. Even in a year like 2021 when the fête du travail falls during France’s current COVID lockdown, there are still some things that will be observed today. Now in 2023, with business running as usual on most days (outside of numerous strikes) this is still a day when many places of business will be closed. So you may not be able to tell the difference between the fête de travail’s usual closures and a pandemic lockdown, but it still is useful to know where it all comes from and what to expect next time.
So What is La Fête du Travail anyway?
As most people know, the French take workers’ rights very seriously (hence the strikes you hear about from time to time). Because of that, La Fête du Travail is a public holiday that is observed almost as strictly as Christmas. You can see the unions march in a lively parade around the Bastille to campaign for and to celebrate workers’ rights. In honor of this, most places will be closed, but you will still find a few brasseries or bars open. The best thing to do is to just wander the city and take in the sights (maybe go see the parade at Bastille, then wander up towards the canal for a picnic!).
May 1st is also a day to celebrate the arrival of spring. As you walk around Paris, you’ll see little sidewalk stalls popping up everywhere selling lilies-of-the-valley (or muguets), since May 1 is the only time of the year when people can sell flowers on the street without having a permit, it is open to everyone.
A Practice forged in the 16th century
The tradition of giving lilies of the valley started with King Charles IX, when he was presented with the flowers on May 1, 1561. Apparently, he liked the flowers so much that he decided to give them to all the ladies of his court on the same day each year. Then, around 1900, French men started giving bouquets of muguet to women to express their affection. Today, the flowers are given as a token of appreciation to close friends and family members. The bouquets can go from the simple branch or two or three to elaborate bouquets that will add a decorative touch to your table – though someone may think it reminds them a bit too much of a bathroom air freshener.
So take a stroll, buy a bouquet of muguet if you fancy, and enjoy all the sights, sounds, and smells Paris has to offer!
We’re always closed on May 1st but to book a future French cooking class in Paris, visit this link.