May Day is a big deal in France. A national holiday– called the workers’ holiday–to be exact. In fact, celebrating the cause of workers (what we now celebrate as Labor Day) on May first is a custom that originated in the United States in the 1800’s when the labor unions were at the peak of the fervor and righteous battles against abusive labor conditions. The celebration had a distinctly left-wing–even communist–flavor, and perhaps that’s why in the US the date was quietly moved to early September and the name of the holiday changed to Labor Day.

But in a country like France where going on strikes is a national pastime and the left–if delusional–remains somewhat a force to be reckoned with, the Fête du Travail is sacrosanct. Besides, it kicks off the merry month of May, which in France is all the merrier for having more official holidays (thus, time off work) than any other month. With the Fête du Travail, and the Catholic holidays of Ascension and Pentecôte all being official national holidays and thus mandatory days off, the national preoccupation becomes “making the bridge” between the official day off and the nearest weekend. Making the bridge (faire le pont) means scheming to take yet another day or two off to connect the official holiday with the weekend and thus being able to leave town for a real mini-vacation.

Need I mention that nothing much of importance gets done here during the month of May. However, the French do have a most charming custom to usher in this month of merriment: the buying for oneself or one’s loved ones or friends a pot or bouquet of lily of the valley (muguet de bois). Lily of the valley is referred to as a “porte-bonheur”–literally, “bringer of happiness” or perhaps what we would call a good luck charm.

A few days before May Day, you begin to see vendors popping up on every corner selling lily of the valley. Although at all other times of the year, selling any kind of flowers or anything else on the street requires paying for a permit, merry May Day is exempted from this evil tax, and anyone can sell the blossoms anywhere without being tithed by the city. And of course, every florist has pots and bouquets of lily of the valley dominating their outdoor displays. The pots for lily of the valley are always deep and vase-shaped, another tradition. Commuters are everywhere clutching their lily of the valley, to be offered to girl- or boyfriend, husband or wife, dinner host, boss, you name it. Even the Metro is perfumed.

I unabashedly love this custom. I can’t think of a more à propos way to usher in this most perfect of months, when all is bursting into blossom, trees are spangled with perfect new leaves, and every gardener’s heart is full of the promise of this season’s plantings. It’s hardly any wonder that May Day was originally a joyous pagan holiday celebrating the promise of the spring’s planting. I’m happy that here in Paris, even though May Day has officially fallen into the clutches of cranky labor unions, it’s arrival is rung in with the perfume and innocent white bells of lily of the valley.