May Traditions in France

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Learn about the long weekends of May in France and the meaning of “faire le pont” and discover a charming French tradition involving lily-of-the-valley.

Traveling to France in May is usually a bit complicated. We have many holidays, and many extended weekends since the French “font le pont” – they will take an extra day off when there is only one day separating a holiday from a weekend, and therefore have a “long weekend”.

We also have a strange French tradition for May 1st…

May 1st : Labor Day, May Day and Lily of the valley day in France

May 1st is Labor Day in France. So it’s a holiday, and people don’t work and most shops are closed.

Except florists!

On May 1st, it’s the tradition to give to women “un brin de muguet” (a sprig of lily of the valley, pronounce it “mu gay”) for luck. Well, most people give a bunch, a small bouquet, or a live plant that you can then plant in your garden. It’s now fashionable to also mix a couple of stands of lily of the valley with a rose…

Un délicat brin de muguet pour du bonheur toute l’année. A delicate sprig lily of the valley for happiness all year long.Click to Tweet

When I was much younger, kids would go pick some in the woods, and sell them on the streets. On that day, everybody is allowed to sell lily-of-the-valley anywhere, even door-to-door, without any kind of permit. It’s called “la vente à sauvette” – selling on the run – and nowadays lots of people still do it – but the flower is usually bought and sold with a profit with flower growers.

More info about lily-ot-the-valley and this French tradition on wikipedia (in French)

20 Useful Words & Phrases in May in France

If you are in France in the month of my, this vocabulary will come in handy!

  1. Le mois de mai
    May, pronounced just like “mais” (but) in French
  2. Le muguet
    Lily-of-the-valley (pronounced “mu gay”)
  3. Un brin de muguet
    A twig, a sprig of lily-of-the-valley
  4. Un bouquet de muguet
    A bouquet, a bunch of lily-of-the-valley
  5. Un pot de muguet
    A pot of lily-of-the-valley
  6. Vendre “à la sauvette”
    Literally, to sell as if you were escaping: to sell without a permit.
  7. Offrir du muguet
    To give some lily-of-the-valley
  8. Un porte-bonheur
    A good luck charm
  9. Joyeux Premier Mai
    Happy May Day
  10. Voici un brin de muguet. J’espère qu’il vous portera bonheur.
    Here is a spring of lily-of-the-valley. May I bring you happiness.
  11. Un brin de muguet ; du bonheur toute l’année.
    A sprig of lily of the valley: happiness all through the year.
  12. Le muguet porte bonheur pour toute l’année et plus encore.
    Lily of the valley is a good luck charm for all the year and even more.
  13. Santé et bonheur pour cette année.
    Health and happiness for this year.
  14. Voici un peu de muguet de mon jardin.
    Here is a bit of lily-of-the-valley from my garden.
  15. Merci ! Comme c’est gentil de votre part !
    Thank you! How nice of you – more ways to say thank you in French.
  16. Comme c’est joli ! Que ça sent bon !
    How pretty! It smells so nice!
  17. Joyeuse fête du travail !
    Happy Labor Day
  18. Joyeuse fête des mères !
    Happy Mother’s Day
  19. Est-ce que vous faites le pont de la Pentecôte ?
    Are you having an extended weekend around La Pentecôte?
  20. Je vais profiter du pont pour partir en vacances.
    I’ll take advantage of the long weekend to go on vacation.

Mai Traditions in France Video

A neighbour of mine kindly gave me access to his garden in Paimpol, Brittany so I could film this video. You can turn the subtitles in French (checked by me) and English with the CC option located to the bottom right of the video (CC and gear).

Could you understand me? I’d love to know what you think: please leave a comment!

Unfortunately, traditions worldwide have been quite disturbed by the Covid 19 crisis. So what’s going to happen in May 2021 in France?

Lily-of-the-valley in 2021 With Coronavirus

In 2021, selling in the street is allowed with people respecting the safety gestures. You will also be able to get lily-of-the-valley in the supermarkets, and the speciality stores which are opened: it’s the case for flower shops and plant nurseries.

In 2020, selling of lily-of-the-valley in the street was forbidden. One could get lily-of-the-valley in the supermarkets and by ordering it for a special delivery at your flower shop (flower shops were closed).

Many people who have lily-of-the-valley in their garden left a sprig by their neighbour’s door: it’s a good-luck charm after all, and a solidarity move which warmed up more than one heart. My neighbours brought me a large bouquet: they have plenty of lily-of-the-valley in their garden, and I was moved to tears.

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May Holidays in France

There are many holidays in May in France:

  1. May 1st is Labor Day (la fête du travail).
  2. May 8th is the end of WW2 in Europe (VE day).
  3. In May, we have a Christian holiday, l’Ascension (this year the 13th), when the Christians celebrate the day Jesus Christ reborn ascended to the Heavens.
  4. Then, we have another Christian holiday” la Pentecôte” is celebrated 40 days after “Pâques” (Easter), which is usually sometimes in May – this year it’s on the 23rd and the 24th.
    It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ.

What Does “Faire le Pont” Mean in French?

Now all these wouldn’t be too bad if the French didn’t have this habit of “faire le pont” – literally “to do the bridge.”

“Faire le pont” means that when a holiday is on a Tuesday or a Thursday, the day which links over to the the weekend is also off for the employees (who still get paid).

So for example, Leyla’s school will be closed on Thursday the 13th for l’Ascension, and Friday the 14th because… well because they can. The teachers and kids will enjoy a four day weekend.

This affects schools (read more about the French school system here) and other institutions including banks, museums, most offices, small boutiques. Most supermarkets are open but only for a few hours. You can imagine that the month of May is not a good one for the French economy…

“how much does it cost? (to the economy)
“A bag of coal, a pack of beer, lamb sausages, skewers…”
Image credits: Ouest France

Watch Out For Extended May Weekends in France

Of course “les ponts du mois de mai” have a tremendous influence on the price of train tickets and the traffic on the roads. You can count on major traffic jams!

Another big celebration in May in France is Mothers’ day! Mothers’ day is the last Sunday in May in France. Follow the link to my article with Mothers’ day in France: traditions and vocabulary.

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Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 23+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Most of my audiobooks are recorded at several speeds to help you conquer the modern French language. Good luck with your studies and remember, repetition is the key!

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