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May Traditions in France

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis - updated on Jun 17, 2020

The month of May holds many holidays in France, and so there are many long weekends in May in France. There’s also an old 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…

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

may in france traditions holiday lily of the valley

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 each other “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…

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)

2 – Lily-of-the-valley in 2020 With Coronavirus

I don’t know what’s going to happen this year: selling in the street is forbidden of course. One can get lily-of-the-valley in the supermarkets and by ordering it for a special delivery at your flower shop (flower shops are closed)

I think that maybe, people who have lily-of-the-valley in their garden will leave a sprig by their neighbour’s door: one can only hope they’ll take the necessary sanitary precautions… it’s a good-luck charm after all, and a solidarity move which may be a bit debatable, but which will surely warm up more than one heart.

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3 – 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 21st), 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 31st.
    It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ.
French holidays pentecote

4 – 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 30th for l’Ascension, and Friday the 31st 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

5 – Watch Out For Extended May Weekends in France

And 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!

6 – May in France Vocabulary

  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. Offrir – to give as a gift
  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. Joyeuse fête du travail – Happy Labor Day
  11. Joyeuse fête des mères – Happy Mother’s Day
  12. Est-ce que vous faites le pont de la Pentecôte ? Are you having an extended weekend around La Pentecôte?
  13. Je vais profiter du pont pour partir en vacances. I’ll take advantage of the long weekend to go on vacation.

And of course, another big celebration in May in France is Mother’s day! But that’s at the very end of the month for us.

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It’s not just slang. The French everybody speaks in France today is NOT the overly enunciated, extremely formal French usually taught to foreigners.