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April 29, 2024

A Sprig of Lily of the Valley and May Day

Did you Receive a Sprig of Lily of the Valley on May 1?

One of the things I love about having lived in different countries and traveling is being exposed to different customs and cultures. 

Growing up in Northern Germany a delicate little flower called Maigloeckchen (translated as “Little May bells”) or Lily of the Valley in English was always a delightful reminder that Spring was finally here.

Lily of the Valley, Maigloeckchen, Mayday

This flowering plant is a native in the Northern Hemisphere of Europe and Asia.  Its little white flowers are bell-shaped and are clustered on a sprig.  Don’t be deceived by its tiny size, delicately sweet scent, as it is quite poisonous if eaten by humans or pets.  In fact, in 2014, this little beauty was chosen to be the “Poisonous Plant of the Year”.

However, in France, the tradition of giving a sprig of lily of the valley dates back to the Renaissance.  It is a lucky charm to chase away the curse of winter and wish the recipient good luck and happiness.  Legend has it that in 1560, King Charles IX and his mother Catherine de Medici visited the Drôme, where he was presented with a sprig of lily of the valley.  He found the gesture so charming, that the following year, he offered a sprig to each of the ladies of the court, and decreed that the tradition be carried on each year.

It is such a lovely tradition.  The flower is a symbol of springtime and symbolizes youth, flirtation, and the return of happiness. Share this delicate flower with your friends and family to wish them happiness and good fortune.  Please, just don’t eat it or feed it to your pet!

May 1st or May Day

May Day has always had several meanings and also different significances to me.  Growing up in Northern Germany, May Day or the first day of May was always dedicated to the working person as the day of the year celebrating labor, ie Labor Day.  As such, “May Day” is celebrated in Europe, as well as Latin America, and also in parts of Africa and Asia.  I presume this is due to the influences of European colonialization.  By contrast, in the US and Canada Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.

May Day in many European countries had brought about showing off the fruits of a country’s industrial strength and power, via elaborate and impressive parades.  Back in the day, many of these parades featured troops and military vehicles, including tanks.  Remember the news footage from Moscow, showing off their military might in the May Day parades?

Mayday, mayday, mayday

I had always wondered about the origins of the distress signal “Mayday” used by mariners and aviators.  When the word is repeated three times in a row, it signals a life-threatening emergency.  Why was an English word used?  My grandfather had told me when he grew up that English was the language of commerce and business, French the language of diplomacy, and German the language of science and technology. (Of course, since the proliferation of the internet, all that has changed.)   

I wondered if the Mayday call came about due to some disaster at sea or possibly a British merchant ship.  I discovered that the mayday signal originated in the early 1920s.  It actually seems to have come about as a mixture of French and English: “Venez m’aider” (French for “come and help me”).  That phrase was shortened to “m’aider” or “help me”. M’aider became Mayday.  

A simple phrase when said three times in a row cannot be confused or mistaken for other phrases.  Credit goes to Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at London’s Croydon Airport.  He developed the phrase in the 1920s when there was a lot of air traffic between Croydon Airport in London, England, and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France.  The phrase “mayday, mayday, mayday” (“m’aider, m’aider, m’aider”) was clear and unmistakable in both English and French.


....And, now you know!


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