Tales from

the Loir

A Weekly Column

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.

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April 25, 2001 - Les Manouches
April 18, 2001 - Trôo
April 11, 2001 - Le P'tit Jules
April 4, 2001 - Men and Their Caves 
March 28, 2001 - Pissenlit
March 21, 2001 - The Egg
March 14, 2001 - Reliquary
March 7, 2001 - The Source of the Loir
February 28, 2001 - La Marseillaise
February 21, 2001 - Still on Wheels
February 14, 2001 - Marcel Proust
February 7, 2001 - La Chandeleur
January 31, 2001 - Winter Comfort Food
January 24, 2001 - Festival of Saint Vincent
January 17, 2001 - Guest Columnist Aprille Glover
January 10, 2001 - Muscadet
January 3, 2001 - Ode to Protein
Archive of Weekly Columns from 2000


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