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"Je Porte Bonheur"

April 29, 2002|BY Dorry Baird Norris

On the first of May some years ago, as we headed for Paris's Orly airport, I discovered with delight what Colette meant when she declared the lily-of-the valley a cult that "...Excites the entire populace of a capital city to a pitch of effervescence. ... Come to Paris on May Day and watch the flower sellers' frontal attack in the streets. ... The tight bunched lilies brim and foam over the trestle tables. Their long pale-green leaves are always arranged as a coronal round the flowers; a tradition none dreams of abolishing."

On this May Day, everywhere we looked, men and women were clutching cellophane wrapped nosegays of Lily of the Valley bearing the message - "Je Porte Bonheur" - literally "I bring good luck." The giant jet that carried us across the Atlantic was redolent with the May lily's sweet scent that serendipitously spilled over into the crowded New York airport.

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May Day was originally a fertility festival - a time for magic, greenery and flowers. Country folk went out into the fields before dawn collecting blossoms and greenery to "bring in the May" and honor the arrival of spring. During the Cold War, I resented the Russians co-opting this bucolic fete to display their military might. Dancing around the Maypole with its ancient pagan overtones seems a far more civilized celebration.

When my children were small, we took May to the neighbors in small baskets filled with what few flowers had managed to emerge from the still cold ground of our upstate New York winter. The pickings were usually slim and collecting them in the cold was often a finger-numbing task. Here in Hagerstown we are more fortunate - a tour of our garden this morning found violets, azaleas, dogwood, sweet-faced Johnny-jump-ups, lilacs, anemones and many of the fragrant kitchen herbs ready for picking.

You can buy small, inexpensive baskets or make your own. The simplest do-it-yourself basket is based on the paper hat you made as a child. (You will find it easier to follow these directions one step at a time rather than trying to understand the big picture.)

Instead of the newspaper you once used for your paper hat use an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of construction paper.

Begin by cutting a one-inch strip from the long side of the paper for the handle. Fold the strip in half lengthwise and put it aside.

With the paper laid flat on a table bring the top of the paper to the bottom, creating a 5 1/2 by 7 1/2 inch rectangle, press the along the fold. Bring one corner of the folded edge to the other and crease (this is the center of your paper), crease and unfold. Take one corner of the top folded edge and place it along the center crease of your paper. This creates a triangle. Repeat with other side. You are left with two flaps at the bottom of your triangle. With a ruler mark a line 3/4 inch from bottom edge. Fold on this line toward the top. Fold again and crease. Turn paper over and repeat with the other flap. Gently pull the "basket" open. Tuck the flaps into each other. You will attach your handle to these edges. I like to lay a sprig of a woody herb on the outside of the basket and place one end of the handle inside the basket. Staple. Repeat on the other side with the other end of the handle.

Now you're ready to fill your basket with greenery. The Victorian conceit that each flower carried a message can make choosing your floral decorations a tricky business. Beware that white candytuft which looks so inviting; in floral speak it conveys "indifference." Instead choose a few sprigs of bee balm that murmurs "compassion," the lilac whispers of modesty while silver king artemisia and rosemary both declare "remembrance." Perk up your nosegay with lemon balm, signifying rejuvenation and chamomile - energy in adversity.

For a special love choose lavender to say "devotion," dogwood to convey "faithfulness," forget-me-not to say "true love," pansy to say "loving thoughts" and mint to convey "warmth of feeling." A clutch of violets declare "faithfulness."

A new mother might appreciate lamb's ears, representing "gentleness," or sage, conveying "wisdom," while sturdy thyme pledges "courage."

Primroses promise "gaiety'" parsley "festivity'" and sweet woodruff portends "eternal life." And just to be on the safe side, tuck in some lavender cotton to ward off evil and yarrow to assure health.

As you tiptoe out of the house before dawn to deliver your baskets on May Day, collect a bit of dew from the hawthorn. Use it to wash your face in keeping with this advice given to maidens in ancient times -

"The fair maid who on the First of May

Goes to the fields at break of day

And washes in dew from the hawthorne tree

Will ever after handsome be."

If you have no hawthorns, lady's mantle and lavender are said to be equally effective.

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