Tomorrow, May 1st is Mayday, which in early pagan Britain was the traditional day to celebrate the coming of summer, and known as Beltane. Modern pagans continue to mark the day by gathering at ancient Stone Circles and hilltops around the country, seeing in the dawn, followed by a day of revelry, music and celebration. Over much of Northern Europe, part of the celebations involved the erection of a Maypole, usually decked with fresh flowers, particularly white Hawthorn blossom. There are various theories about the symbolism of the Maypole, any or all which may well be true. From the Nordic and Germanic traditions, it represents the great tree of life, or The World Tree Yggdrasil
Whereas other scholars would suggest that it represents the World axis (Axis Mundi) symbolising the inclination of the Northern Hemisphere towards the sun, and also thought to be the point where a direct communication between the earth and sky is established each year. And for the Ancient Greeks and Romans, its a symbol of fertility associated with the minor deity Priapus, who was the rustic fertility god, the protector of livestock, fruits and plants, gardens, bees and male genitalia, and who took the form of a man with an incredibly large penis and a permanent erection.
You pays your money and you picks your choice, but for my money all 3 are relevant.
I first became acquainted with the Mayday custom in my 20s, when I joined Stevenage Sword Dancers. We were invited to join our local Morris Dance side, Offley Morris Men to dance at dawn at the local Ickwell Mayday celebration, and we continued doing this for a couple of years. However, a couple of the guys in the Stevenage side were heavily involved each year with the Padstow May Day celebrations, also known as the Obby Oss festival. I joined my friends Mick Hursey and his brother-in-law Bill Warder at Padstow one year, and continued to go to Padstow for several years after. Both Mick and Bill’s fathers had been early members of Offley MM, and both my friends were accomplished dancers and musicians, Mick being a superb accordion player and Bill a pretty good drummer. They are both good singers too.
One of the many Padstow May Day pages
Padstow is a fishing village on the north coast of Cornwall, in the far Southwest of England. For the Padstonians, Mayday marked the coming of easier fishing conditions and although records of May Day celebrations go back to at least the 16th Century, the introduction of the Obby Oss appears to date from the 18th Century. The Oss is a fiercesome large black horse, originally constructed from a wooden hoop frame draped in tarpaulin (with real tar!!!). A yoke across the centre of the construction enables a dancer (usually a young, fit male) to carry the Oss while the yoke spars allow him to spin the whole contraption round, and sweep the skirts up and down. The dancer’s head which protrudes above the middle of the Oss, is capped with a tarpaulin horses head and mane.
The Oss itself is thought to have evolved from the tradition of running lighted tar barrels through the streets of Padstow in earlier years. The practice was banned by the Elfen Safety people, probably because several houses each year got ignited as the day progressed and everyone got a bit dazed and confused from the drinking.
The whole town of Padstow dress in white for the day and wear hawthorn blossom and/or fresh spring flowers. The day itself starts at midnight on May Eve, when the Oss and his party visit the local big houses and inns around town and sing the Padstow May Carol. It’s got a lot of verses, giving the local bigwigs plenty of time to find sufficient money to donate to the beer fund and tell them to bugger off elsewhere :). The night singing continues until around 2am, giving the participants the chance of a couple of hours sleep before the main day-long celebration kicks off at the crack of dawn.
Traditionally, the Obby Oss party consisted primarily of local fishermen and farmworkers. Leading the Oss around around town is the ‘Teaser’, another dancer holding a decorated leather bait mounted on a stick in his hand to tease the Oss along the route. Following the Oss in procession are a massed band of accordionists and drummers. The Oss itself dances, twirls and will attempt to lift its skirts high above any young maiden to cover them. It is thought that any woman covered by the Oss will become pregnant within the year. Until 1919, only one Oss existed, which collected solely for beer money. The Red Oss and followers adorn themselves with red ribbons and sashes. From 1919 onwards there has been 2 Osses with the introduction of the Blue Oss, which collects for the local seaman’s charity. In recent years 2 children’s Osses have also appeared. The traditional Red Oss is stabled at the Golden Lion pub in the centre of Padstow.
While most of the procession consists of music, the full Padstow May Carol is sung at various times, during which the Oss takes a little rest. But then as the music swells, the Oss revives and the band will frequently shout ‘Oss Oss’!!! to which the onlookers respond ‘Wee Oss’!!!
In recent years there has been a massive increase in the numbers of people coming into Padstow for Mayday, and the place is heaving. All good for local local business of course, but it does mean that native Padstonians feel their day has been to some extent been taken over. Nevertheless, everyone who attends is made to feel welcome, and everyone has a brilliant and joyful time. Padstow May Day is always celebrated on 1st May, unless its a Sunday, when it will be celebrated on the Monday.
Try to get along one year…..but book early!!!! The best times to go are when May 1 falls during the midde of the week.
The Padstow May Carol:
Video of Padstow Mayday 2012
You’ll find lots of other good Padstow Mayday videos on a search