French Traditions – May Day: lilies, dragons and pagan fertility


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Because May Day falls six months after November 1st it marks the end of the winter and has traditionally been an occasion for populist and wild celebrations involving dancing, bonfires and fertility rituals which included love-making in the fields to improve the earth’s fertility. In Europe the celebration of May Day goes back to the Celtic festival of Beltane. There was also the pre-Christian festival of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers. While in Northern Europe May 1st is still associated with the Christian celebration of Walpurgis Night.

Pagan May Day celebrations were partly abandoned and/or absorbed into the Christian calendar during the process of ‘conversion’ in Europe. But pagan elements can still be found in different European countries with, for example, May Pole dancing (the may pole is the male representation and the ribbons are female), floral crowning of May Queens and well dressing.

In France May 1st is also La Fête du Muguet, The Festival of the Lily of the Valley, with its tradition of giving a small bouquet of lily-of-the-valley, for good luck and happiness and as a celebration of the end of winter.

There is a French legend dating from the 6th Century that tells of the origin of the lily-of-the-valley. It concerns Saint Leonard, who was a friend of King Clovis and lived near Limoges in the Vienne Valley. Saint Leonard, the legend goes, wanted to spend his days as a hermit and to live in the woods amongst the flowers and trees so as to be closer to God. The story relates that in the woods there lived a dragon called Temptation and this dragon called on St Leonard to leave his woods and, when he did not obey, the dragon blew flames and burned down the Saint’s dwelling place.  Long and terrible battles then took place between the saint and the dragon and a great deal of blood was spilled upon the wood’s leafy floor. When, finally, St Leonard defeated the dragon poisonous weeds started to grow where the dragon’s blood had been spilled, while beds of lilies-of-the-valley appeared wherever the blood of Saint Leonard had touched the ground.

The actual tradition of presenting lilies-of-the-valley to others seems to stem from May 1st, 1561 when King Charles IX of France received a lily-of-the-valley as a lucky charm (showing the endurance of pagan beliefs reached all levels of society!). Following this event he annually offered the flower to the ladies of his court. The custom of men presenting the flowers to their lovers became increasingly popular from the beginning of the 20th Century but now it has broadened out to become a token action of affection and appreciation towards close friends and family members..

In 1889 the 2nd Socialist International made May 1st a day for working class celebration, demonstration and action. However, in France it was actually the right-wing Vichy government that, in 1941, declared May 1st the feast of labour. The Vichy government also created Mother’s Day in France. These are among the few acts of that regime that remain in force today.

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in Catholicism, Folklaw and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to French Traditions – May Day: lilies, dragons and pagan fertility

  1. Pingback: French Traditions – May Day: lilies, dragons and pagan fertility | Decode

  2. GaynorB says:

    Thanks.

    I had wondered about the muguet giving custom.

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