Traditional British celebrations: May Day in Padstow

The Padstow May Day celebration is so old that no one knows when it began. The only things that are certain are that (a) it’s genuinely ancient and (b)it’s still going on.

In addition to the inevitable alcohol, the celebration involves songs, dance, drums, accordions, and two ‘Obby ‘Osses, one red and one blue. Actually, both are mostly black (with a head that looks nothing like a horse’s), but their followers (dressed mostly in white) wear either blue or red sashes and whatevers. The tradition’s so deeply rooted that during World War II soldiers from Padstow cobbled together a celebration as best they could, making an ‘Oss out of blankets.

We heard that from a woman whose father had done it.

Padstow, Cornwall, May Day, 'Obby 'Oss

The ‘Obby ‘Oss. It’s good luck for the kids to touch it. These shots are from the children’s parade, which is in the morning.

Padstow’s Tourist Information Centre web site talks about “many conflicting theories about the origins of the Obby Oss. [Some spellings leave out the apostrophe, and since I’ve been a copy editor, I can’t help noting that sort of nonsense. I’m sure every last snoozing one of you cares just as passionately.] Some say its roots are in pagan times, others that it’s a rain maker, a fertility symbol, a deterrent to a possible landing by the French some centuries ago or even a welcome to summer.”

My best guess is that a lot of those things were layered over each other during the course of centuries. My next best guess is that Cornwall doesn’t need rain often enough for a rain-making ritual to get ancient, so that’s the only theory I’d rule out.

I checked several sources for the morning song’s words (there’s also an evening song), and they vary, but basically it has lots of verses and you can find one to justify almost every theory. Except rain. So layers, right? I found references to the French, one verse mentions the Spanish, and several mention the white rose and the red. Since the War of the Roses wasn’t fought on Cornish soil, I’m guessing they’re about purity and passion, but I may be importing that from some English lit class I took—the one called Stinkingly Obvious Symbolism and its Heavy-Handed Interpretation.

The song’s worth a listen.

Even if you discount the roses, it’s hard not to find fertility references. The verses are full of beds and bodies. And then there’s the belief that a woman caught under the ‘Oss’s skirts will be pregnant within the year. Can’t get much more stinkingly obvious than that.

The ‘Oss flashed his skirts over Wild Thing the first time we went. That was several years ago and she’s still not pregnant. Now it’s true, she’s past the age and in a same-sex relationship, as well as lacking a uterus for the past few decades, but even so, if you’re looking to get pregnant I recommend trying the more conventional method in addition to getting under that ‘Oss’s skirts.

Here’s a handful of photos. They are—in a break from tradition—relevant to the post.

Padstow May Day children's parade

From the children’s parade.


The best way to see the 'Oss.

The best way to see the ‘Oss.


The second best way to see the 'Oss. It does get crowded.

The second best way to see the ‘Oss. It does get crowded.


If there's any rivalry between the followers of the Red 'Oss and the Blue 'Oss, it doesn't seem to turn into hostility.

If there’s any rivalry between the followers of the Red ‘Oss and the Blue ‘Oss, it doesn’t seem to turn into hostility.


Following the blue 'Oss.

Following the blue ‘Oss.

26 thoughts on “Traditional British celebrations: May Day in Padstow

  1. One of my favourite things about Britain is all its regional festivities with traditions so arcane that nobody has a clue what it’s all about but they do it every year anyway. It’s making events out of eccentricity.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Most interesting. It is strange how we know so little about where some things begin. But I guess I’d rather wonder about things like that than fill my head following the current news reports or follow the election! LOL :)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. May seems to be the month of strange and natural yet celebratory happenings. This is an interesting one about which I had never heard before reading about it here. I recently had a nephew tell me that all the occult and shadowy events take place between March and June, for whatever reason. I have no idea why! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Re the apostrophe: My (British) husband insists on including one in front of the word “phone”. Obviously, this is because it is shortened from the word “telephone”. So it seems logical that there are apostrophes in words shortened from “hobby horse”. Donchathink?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I went with the apostrophe’d version (and don’t ask me to justify the apostrophe I just used–I could but it would take too much effort), but at a certain point words lose their history, and their apostrophes, through use. ‘Phone becomes phone, and the ‘Obby ‘Oss becomes the Obby Oss. It’s just the sands of time wearing away those apostrophes.

      What I find truly weird is that Cornwall isn’t a place where people drop their H’s. So where did the ‘Obby ‘Oss’s go?


  5. Such interesting, unusual traditions there on that side of the pond… I am moved to say that I am one of those who “cares just as passionately” about grammar and punctuation. I was born/weaned an editor. It was problematic for me as a child, always correcting my parents at the dinner table. Ouch.

    Liked by 1 person

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