May Day/Le Premier Mai

May Day/Le Premier Mai

There was this weird freak of nature that Saturday: the sun came out. Sébastien and I didn’t want to go inside for this unnatural nice weather, so we walked along the Seine. Muguets, or lilies-of-the-valley, were everywhere, adding a sweet, delicate scent to the car fumes and cigarette smoke of Paris. People stood on corners of the streets and passed through parks with buckets of the little bell-shaped white flowers to sell as a gift for happiness. Ça porte le bonheur, les muguets. It was the first weekend after the Fête du Premier Mai, May Day, and I thought of sinking ships. (excerpt, Blame It on Paris)

We always consider May Day our anniversary. We can’t remember any other dates, but we remember this one.

Buying our first house after we got married was a scary proposition for us. Were we making the right choice? Did we really want to live here for that long? Could we survive looking at the amortization table on that mortgage?

But a few months after we moved in, Sébastien came inside and said, “There are muguets coming up all around the house!”

And there were. A lady had lived in this house for forty years, and as she aged, the house had fallen into extreme disrepair, and the garden she once had tended had completely grown over. The man who bought it from her rebuilt/remodeled the house to sell and razed the back garden rather than try to fight through the growth and see what was salvageable.

But things come up: rose bushes, growing back from the roots. Forsythia. Lilies. I like that about this lady’s life–that though she may have felt toward the last that she had lost so much, and that is a grieving thing, in fact, the things she planted still grow and enrich other lives.

And most wonderful of all of the things she planted, this one came up: scores and scores of lilies-of-the-valley, lining the walls of the house like a magic ring.

I’ve never seen anything like it. My sister tried for years and years to get lilies-of-the-valley to grow in the South and never managed it. Yet here they are.

And to us, given the extra specialness of that day and those flowers to us, we thought this was a sign.

Lilies-of-the-valley. Muguets. In France, they “portent bonheur.” Most people like to translate “porter bonheur” as “bring good fortune” but the first meaning of bonheur is happiness, so I’m going to stick with that.


Happy May Day everyone! Here’s a muguet from me to you, and I’m posting this a day early so you can pass these May Day wishes on to anyone you like. I feel it’s a tradition we could stand to renew in the U.S.–gifting flowers and happiness on May Day.

(This is an old fantasy of mine, restoring May Day. As a child, after reading Louisa May Alcott’s Jack & Jill, where the girls sneak around leaving May Day bouquets early in the morning, I tried single-handedly to get the tradition going again among people I knew by doing the same with my sister. And she still sometimes tries, but now she makes elaborate and exquisite tussie-mussies, full of symbolism.)

Here’s my symbolism, the muguet. Good happiness to you. Embrace that happiness, don’t get caught up in things that make it easy to ignore.

  • Arrrgh, I want to know how she got those to grow. I tried planting some when I bought my house years ago and they never came up. Never. Well, lots of things I tried to grow never came up and I also had a dog whose mission in life was to dig up anything green in the yard. Yeah, I blame it all on him. It was the collie’s fault, I tell you!

    April 30, 2007 at 9:49 am
  • Ooh, that’s like a little mini-fantasy of mine. I can’t grow anything very well, so it would be the BEST treat to have things just pop up unexpectedly. And the May Day tradition is so beautiful. I’d run around gifting everyone I know with flowers from my garden, except, well, my garden consists of some Mexican Heather, Lantana, and GINORMOUS elephant ears (seriously, like four-five foot long leaves) which will not go away no matter how many times I pull the darn bulbs up. That would not make a very pretty bouquet.

    April 30, 2007 at 9:54 am
  • I’m showing this to my girls. I feel, with the right incentive (like possibly chocolate) they will take on this project and I will wake to bouquets of flowers scattered round the inside of the house. I can picture it. Can’t you? Beautiful.
    Thanks for sharing your traditions with us, Laura.

    April 30, 2007 at 10:45 am
  • Don’t you love those lovely surprises? Those gifts from the Universe? When we first tried to move from our small ramshackle “starter” house, we had a hard time. (In short: the agents overpriced our house. We didn’t realize. We eventually fired them, which apparently is unheard of, unless you get two anal-retentive, organized Virgos very, very mad.) But the bad realtor is not the story. We put offers on two houses, I think, over the summer, and at both houses I could hear Towhees, my favorite bird. (They say “Drink your TEA!” I just like it.) Our offer was accepted on the second house, but we lost it because we didn’t sell our house in time–another offer was accepted and we were done. (I’m not sure that’s allowed everywhere, but it is here.) We gave up for a while, fired our agents, took a little break, I got pregnant, we really needed a bigger house. We began trying again in the fall. The towhees had all flown south. No way to know if the house we put an offer on and eventually bought had towhees, which is a silly thing to base a home on, I know, but I do like them so much. Just hearing them makes me happy.

    And then on a spring day several months after we moved, I heard a towhee. Thank you, Universe.

    And thank YOU, Laura, for the beautiful pictures. Happy May Day to you, too. And don’t look at the amortization table. Ever.

    April 30, 2007 at 7:09 pm
  • I love the story of the garden renewing itself, especially with your special flowers showing up. So cool.

    I love the scent of lily-of-the-valley, but have never had the slightest luck growing them anywhere I’ve ever lived.

    May 1, 2007 at 12:33 am
  • Those pictures are wonderful. Did you or Sebastien take them?

    May 1, 2007 at 8:57 am
  • Happy May Day to everyone officially today! (May 1).

    Alas, Jayne, you guessed it. At least, I see how you politely pretended I might have been the one to take them, too, but I think you secretly guessed: Sébastien took them.

    Yes, I don’t know ANYone who can grow lilies-of-the-valley in the South. (DebR, do you live in the South? I’ll have to check your site, now I can’t remember.) And I am a BAD gardener. Child of a very good gardener who grew up al l the wrong way (like…umm…lazy, forgetful of watering, that kind of thing. Can’t even blame it on a collie!). The lilies-of-the-valley were a special part of France we really missed and never thought we would have here, given the combination of challenges. To see them just sprouting up all around our house a few months after we moved in…that was something.

    I’m glad you got your towhees, Amy! My mom loves those, too.

    Dee, if your daughters obliged, you’ll have to let me know! It’s a really fun tradition, I don’t know why it fell out of fashion in the U.S. I bet if Hallmark sold flowers, they would push it! 🙂

    May 1, 2007 at 9:15 am
  • Thank you for the beautiful pictures and story!
    How do you pronounce muguet??
    They are my birth flower and I wanted to paint them for today but they are too hard to find in most NYC floral shops..
    A neighbor has them in her front garden, but the metal gate is too high for me 🙁
    You’re so lucky to have your own!

    May 1, 2007 at 9:25 am
  • Moo-gay.

    It’s official, Carol, you should come here in late April to paint instead of swanning around Paris eating chocolate and torturing us. 🙂 Lovely Ladurée/macaron painting today, by the way! A new one to add among my favorites.

    May 1, 2007 at 9:30 am
  • I was going to comment here late last night, but instead I decided to blog my own floral May Day post (I gave you credit for the inspiration). But I’ll add here, I love surprise plants. When we moved to this house, it had been owned by a couple who had raised a family and lived on through their retirement here. When the passed away, the house was rented out to some younger family members, a nephew I believe, who, from the comments of neighbors and bill collectors who STILL send mail to this address, wasn’t the most homey of sorts. The yard was pretty dead when we arrived. But I was still in the peak of my gardening frenzy and so we started planting and watering. We were pleasantly surprised to find that many of the plants had survived unseen somewhere deep below the earth or maybe in tiny crevices of the retaining wall. Over the years we’ve had many flowers – hollyhocks, perennial sweet peas, iris, violets, traveling onions, even roses and entire flowering bushes appear, seemingly out of thin air.

    May 1, 2007 at 3:56 pm
  • I`ve been away for a while…catching up on posts..and you have lot`s I hav`t read….going to get some coffee and start….

    May 1, 2007 at 10:22 pm
  • I live in Kentucky, so northern part of the South or southern part of the Midwest, depending on your point of view. 🙂

    May 1, 2007 at 11:25 pm
  • I think there’s a moral on these surprise plants, don’t you, Laume? What you plant in life matters. If it’s wisteria, someone (perhaps your whole neighborhood! boy, does that stuff go everywhere) will be dealing with it in fifty years, and if it’s trees, or violets, or roses, they will, too.

    I’m saying South for Kentucky, DebR. Definitely South.

    Welcome back, Gypsy Purple! I come by your blog and enjoy your beautiful old Vie Parisienne covers, but I usually have my hands full of baby and can’t post a comment. I’m glad you’re back online again.

    May 2, 2007 at 9:54 am
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