May 2, 2001
- May Day
Traditionally, a gift of the small white
bell-shaped flower called muguet is said to porter bonheur
(bring good luck). The source of this tradition is hard to pin
down but it seems to have started in the 1930s when the communist
party sold muguets in Paris on the first day of May to raise
money for the party. Even though the communists probably started
this tradition, it is the capitalists who profit from it. When
Claude Chene, ledit Dame de Beaume, warned me that it
was a tradition to give a bouquet of muguets on the first of
May, I went shopping. The local Flowers R Us is called Jardiland
and they are not communists. Flowers are normally cheap in France
but on the first day of May, a small pot of three muguets costs
about five dollar. I can usually buy a dozen roses for five dollars
but the law of supply and demand on this one day of the year
is harsh. Fortunately, I paid the price and stocked up. On the
morning of 1 May, my neighbor, Madame Lallier, knocked on my
door and handed me a bouquet of muguets and told me il porte
de bonheur. I returned the favor and presented my own good
luck to her.
Madame Lallier told me that the first
of May was a very important holiday in France and that the village
would be full of tourists to faire un pont. Faire
un pont literally means to make a bridge. Practically it
means to make a long weekend by taking off from work on Friday
or Monday. This is not an unusual concept in America where the
government normally designates Monday as the official holiday
if the real day of celebration falls on an inconvenient day.
The French who usually get five weeks of vacation time make
bridges all year long just by scheduling a day off from work.
Americans are lucky to get one week off and they are not expected
to take it so they resort to calling in sick on Friday or Monday.
The most interesting thing about May Day
is that it is a completely secular holiday. Most holidays in
France have a religious foundation. May Day was originally a
pagan celebration of the coming of spring but it was never adapted
to the Christian celebrations as were other pagan holidays. Although
many cathedrals and churches are built over dolmens, menhirs,
Roman temples and Celtic holy places, the church had to draw
a distinction somewhere. Perhaps May Day's roots in the fertility
cults were too much for early Christians to accept and a good
place to draw the distinction.
So what happens when the first day of
May falls on a Tuesday. In America everybody goes to work. In
France everybody gets a four day weekend. In the States, we are
still rooting out communist conspiracies. But France is the land
of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the social contract and the Great Revolution.
In short, nobody pushes the workers around here. The Revolution
gave a kind of power to the people that everyone still fears,
even the people. Today, demonstrations and strikes are usually
peaceful events that end in compromise.
Ironically, May Day as it is celebrated
today comes from America. On May 1, 1886, workers were demonstrating
in Chicago for an eight hour work day when police attacked and
killed six of the workers in Haymarket Square. In 1889, the first
international union in Paris declared May 1 first as an international
working class holiday in remembrance of the Haymarket martyrs.