Let us all unite: May Day at Padstow

Unite and unite and let us all unite 
For summer is acome unto day

The words of the ‘Obby ‘Oss songs will not be heard this year. The ‘osses will remain in their stables and Padstow will be eerily quiet as this iconic Cornish festival comes to a temporary halt, brought low by a virus. Cheer up though! We can still remember May Day virtually, by viewing the scores of video clips and old newsreel footage available on Youtube going back to the 1930s.

The first newsreel with sound

As with similar events, it’s comforting to think that the origins of this festival lie in pagan fertility rituals lost in the mists of time, although in reality the ‘Obby ‘Oss is only securely documented from the early 1800s. However, there are strong continuities from that time – the familiar prancing ‘oss, the teasers, the parades through the town, the trance-like hypnotic rhythm of the songs. All these seem to echo through the centuries.

But look and listen closely to the video clips and you’ll notice that even Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss festival has changed over time. The words of the songs, the times they are sung, the clothing, masks and paraphernalia of the participants, the flags flown, the flowers picked, have all undergone subtle change.

Nonetheless, the core festivity is intact. Moreover, it survived the attentions of nineteenth century moralists and reformers committed to ‘rational recreation’. In 1844 Thomas Trevaskis, a temperance leader and Bible Christian in the district, described May Day in Padstow as ‘a scene of riot, debauchery and general licentiousness – a perfect nuisance to all the respectable inhabitants of the place’. He decided to buy off the roistering inhabitants by offering a fat bullock to be roasted annually if only they gave up their foolish ways.

The response was not exactly what Trevaskis had hoped. ‘He himself drove the bullock, the best beast in his possession, but the people refused the offer and drove him out of the town, bullock and all, while certain of them pelted him with divers missiles into the bargain!’

Concerns about the ‘unusual amount of drunkenness’ re-surfaced late in the century. At that time, some locals began a temperance ‘oss (the blue ‘oss) as a rival to the old ‘oss (or red ‘oss). Transformed after World War One into a ‘peace ‘oss’, this joined its older mate to become an accepted part of the festivities.

The crowds have also changed over time, from comprising mainly Padstonians who own the ceremony to massive hordes of gaping sightseers. Among them stroll scores of sociologists and anthropologists eager to ‘explain’ the festival. Alan Kent, in the best extended account of Cornwall’s festival culture, remarks that the ‘Obby ‘Oss is a ‘reaction to modernity’. But it was more significant as a survival of pre-modernity. As the rough and ready festivities of pre-industrial times succumbed to the reformers and religious evangelicals in the 1800s, Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss was one of the few survivors.

Its survival is due to Padstonians’ fierce commitment to their local culture in the face of condemnation from outsiders. This was helped by the town’s location on the margins of Cornwall’s industrialisation. Here, the pressures of change were less keenly felt. By the twentieth century the place of Padstow’s May Day in wider Cornish culture meant that it had become ‘too big to fail’.

Since the 1960s however, there has been a more recognisably reactive aspect. For, remarkably, Padstow is now at the cutting edge of change, of modernity, or post-modernity, in Cornwall. Some of the highest levels of second homes in Cornwall are found in the immediate vicinity, while gentrification picked up pace when it became the first centre of up-market gastro-tourism in Cornwall. In that sense, the ‘Obby ‘Oss is all about ownership, identity and belonging. It serves as a powerful remembrance of former times and a former Cornwall, reassuring us of our place in the two Cornwalls we nowadays see around us.

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