4:24 am

Making bridges

The French don’t do that American thing of transposing holidays to the nearest Monday; instead, they let their holidays fall where the calendar gods intend. But, when a holiday falls midweek, they’ll typically take off the corresponding Monday (and Tuesday if necessary) or Friday (and Thursday) to faire le pont (make a bridge). When you have five weeks of paid vacation time, this kind of bridge building is a lot easier. And so it has been this weekend.

May 1st is Labor Day in France, and it appears that most Parisians who can have built their bridge and gone out of town: the crowds on the metro have diminished, and the markets were relatively empty on Sunday. The markets are packed today, though, although most of the non-food stores (and even a lot of them) are closed for the holiday.

The custom most strongly associated with May 1st in France is buying, and giving, lilies-of-the-valley. This has nothing to do with Labor Day, of course. According to the Wikipedia article that I consulted, the custom of giving lilies-of-the-valley as a good luck token dates back to Charles IX in 1561. Every florist shop has hundreds of little bouquets of these lilies. And, if a little cluster isn’t enough for you, or if you need a hostess gift for May 1, you can buy potted lilies, or elaborate arrangements in which the lilies are grouped with roses or orchids. You also have the option of buying your lilies from street merchants. The Wikipedia article also observes that, on May 1 only, it is permitted for non-florists to sell lilies-of-the-valley. (The implication there of course is that on all other days and with respect to all other flowers, French florists are protected from such amateur competition. Although I remember seeing street merchants selling daffodils for a few weekends at the start of spring, so there are apparently other seasonal exceptions.) I dutifully bought my own handful of lilies, wrapped in a sheet of cellophane that sports the legend "Je porte bonheur" (I bring happiness), to establish my bona fides. In my good deed for the day, I even bought a sheaf of lilies for my neighbor across the hall.

There are two more bridge-building opportunities for the French this month: next Tuesday, May 8, is Victory Day (the date WWII ended in Europe), and Thursday, May 17, is Ascension Thursday.

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