May is a wonderful month in France. Unless you need to get work done. It’s a veritable garland of holidays, starting with May 1st Workers Day. The tradition goes back to 1886 when workers in Chicago went on a massive strike for the 8-hour work day. But another part of the May Day tradition, the exchange of sweet smelling muguet, or lily of the valley, goes back to 1561, when Charles IX gave sprigs of muguet to all the ladies of his court. On this day absolutely everything is closed, since it’s illegal to force anyone to work. Most May 1st celebrations involve a big family meal, exchange of flowers and going on a long walk together, or for the dedicated a march for workers’ rights somewhere.
Then a week later is May 8, commemorating the Allied defeat of Germany and the end of World War II in Europe. In the village there is a procession to the monument for the war dead. The mayor wears his tri-colored sash and old warriors pin their medals over their hearts. Each year the gathered crowd grows older and the actual veterans fewer in number. A few years ago an elderly woman thanked me for attending the ceremony. She explained with tears in her eyes that she always marked this day, the end of the war that had taken her two brothers’ lives.
Those two holidays are followed a week later by Ascension and a week after that by Pentecost. France prides itself on the strict separation of Church and State, except when it comes to Catholic holidays. Not being Catholic, I was curious about exactly what was Ascension (versus for example Assumption) and what was Pentecost. Only 10% of the French go to church regularly and under half consider themselves to be Catholic, so it’s hard to find someone who can explain them. Lucky for me, our newest Dora Maar Fellow, Jane MacAvock, is a specialist in 17th- and 18th-century French painting, which means she is wonderfully trained in all the Saints and symbols of Catholic iconography.
Jane explains: Ascension happens 40 days after Easter and is the moment Christ ascends into heaven. The Assumption, celebrated on August 15, is the moment when Mary is bodily taken up into heaven by angels. Assumption comes from the Latin assumere, to lift up, and implies that she, unlike her son, can’t do it without help. (In most paintings, Jane explains, she’s sitting on clouds being lifted by angels, while below on the ground there’s general confusion at her funeral.) The Pentecost happens fifty days after Easter and commemorates when the apostles were overtaken by the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues.
It’s no wonder that in the dark cold month of January we flip forward to peek at May in our calendars to see the timing of these May events. On a bad year the holidays fall on Saturday or Sunday. But this is a good year, with the four May holidays landing on Tuesday (May 1), Tuesday (May 8), Thursday (Ascension, May 17) and Monday (Pentecost, May 28) making for a series of exceptionally long weekends. (When it falls on Tuesday, Monday goes with it; and likewise, a Thursday landing means the following Friday is a wash.) In effect, there are only 17 working days this month!
You can moan about how the French ever get anything done, but statistically they have high productivity rates beating the US when compared with actual hours worked. Spending more time relaxing with your friends and family and less at work doesn’t actually mean you get less done. Indeed, though the fellows in residence at Dora Maar are blissfully unaware of the dysfunction of the “real” world this May, I notice that when they have the opportunity to take a break from their “real” worlds, no matter what the month, they are also astonished by how productive they are. And we in the real world are that much richer for what they are able to produce.