Magical May – a month of celebration in the West Country

Many people look forward to bank holidays away from work and this year people will be treated to an extra day off in May for the King’s coronation, giving us a total of nine bank holidays in 2023 – three bank
holidays in a single month!

May is most noticeable for being the turning point in the year where temperatures rise and a vast variety of flowers come into bloom, letting the world break out into a riot of colour. As such, May’s full moon has come be known as the Full Flower Moon which will appear on Friday 5 th May with the new moon on Friday 19th May. Pagens associate the full Flower Moon with the element of fire, and thus often celebrate it by lighting bonfires and engaging in other magical fire rituals to bring prosperity.

There are many celebrations lined up for May in Cornwall here are just a few:

1st May or May Day – various locations
The maypole dance is a spring ritual usually performed on 1st May. The folk custom is done around a pole garnished with flowers and ribbon to symbolize a tree. Practiced for generations, the maypole tradition dates back to the dances ancient people used to do around actual trees in hope of harvesting a large crop.

Today, the dance is still practiced and holds special significance to pagans, including Wiccans, who have made a point to take part in the same customs their ancestors did. But people both new and old to the tradition may not know the complicated roots of this simple ritual. The history of the maypole dance reveals that a variety of events gave rise to the custom.

Traditions often include gathering wildflowers and green branches, weaving floral garlands, crowning a May Queen (sometimes with a male companion), and setting up a Maypole, May Tree or May Bush, around which people dance. Bonfires are also part of the festival in some regions.

1st May Obby Oss – Padstow
The term “hobby horse” is used, principally by folklorists, to refer to the costumed characters that feature in some traditional seasonal customs, processions and similar observances around the world.

They are made from a circular framework, tightly covered with shiny black material, carried on the shoulders of a dancer whose face is hidden by a grotesque mask attached to a tall, pointed hat. A skirt (made from the same material) hangs down from the edge of the frame to around knee-height. There is a small, wooden, horse’s head with snapping jaws, attached to a long, straight neck, with a long mane, which sticks out from the front of the frame. On the opposite side there is a small tail of horsehair.

There are two rival horses and their fiercely loyal bands of supporters at Padstow: the “old Oss” is decorated with white and red, and its supporters wear red scarves to show their allegiance; the Blue Ribbon ‘Oss (“Peace ‘Oss”) is decorated with white and blue and its supporters follow suit. A “Teaser” waving a padded club dances in front of each ‘Oss, accompanied, as they dance through the narrow streets, by a lively band of melodeons, accordions and drums playing Padstow’s traditional May Song. The’Osses sometimes capture young women beneath the skirt of the hobby horse; often they emerge smeared with black. Children sometimes make “Colt” ‘Osses and hold their own May Day parades.

1st May – Bolster Festival – St Agnes
Not many places have rituals dedicated to giants who ate small children, but St Agnes does. Legend has it that the giant Bolster cleared the hillside at St Agnes by throwing all the rocks onto Carn Brea.

In order to prove his love for human missionary St Agnes, she challenged him to fill a small hole in the ground with his blood. Bolster, not being too clever, thought this would be an easy way to win her admiration and cut open his vein. What he didn’t know was that the hole led down into the sea at Chapel Porth.

It did not matter how much blood flowed, the hole would not fill up and in the end, Bolster collapsed and died. You can still see the red stains from his blood on the rocks at ChapelPorth, apparently!

Bolster’s memory lives on in the annual St Agnes Bolster Festival, which is held in the village each May to celebrate the cruel giant’s demise. Again, it’s basically an excuse for a lots of beer drinking and merriment.

5th May – Flora Day Furry Dance – Helston
The annual Flora Day celebration in Helston is one of the oldest customs welcoming the summer. The earliest mention seems to be in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1790 where the writer says "At Helstone, a genteel and populus borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th May to revelry (festive mirth, not loose jollity). Flora Day is usually held on 8 th May, unless that date falls on a Sunday or Monday (market day), in which case the previous Saturday is taken. This year it has been altered due to the Kings Coronation.

The schedule of the day is thus: morning dance at 7 a.m., children’s dance at 10 a.m. though in recent years the numbers and logistics have seen this advanced to 9.50 a.m. midday dance at noon, and evening dance at 5 p.m. Of these, the midday dance is perhaps the best known: it was the dance of the gentry in the town, and today the men wear top hats and tails while the women dance in their finest frocks.

Traditionally, the dancers wear lily of the valley. which is Helston's symbolic flower. The gentlemen wear it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wear it upside down on the right. Lily of the valley is worn on Flora Day by dancers, bandsmen, Flora Day stewards and by those who are “Helston-born”. The Hal-an-Tow, which takes place on the same day, is a kind of mystery play with various historical and mythical themes. The Hal-an-Tow Pageant characters include Friar Tuck, Robbin Hood, St George and Saint Michael.