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.