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English customs on May Day

Posted in British Towns, Customs, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Nature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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This edited article about May Day customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 954 published on 3 May 1980.

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The Padstow Hobby Horse is shown in the top row, middle pucture. Pictures by Ward

Both Padstow in Cornwall and Minehead in Somerset celebrate May Day with a hobby horse festival, but the Cornish town’s festival involves a much more elaborate display.

Here, the hobby horse is not a manufactured article, like the beautifully decorated object carried through the streets of Minehead. Instead there is a man covered in a full-skirted costume with a black hoop and a grotesque mask.

As in the Helston Furry Dance, there is a traditional song for the occasion:

Unite and unite, let us unite
For summer is a-cuman today.

The words show that this ancient festival is a genuine Celtic May Day celebration, welcoming the season in which things will grow.

During the Hundred Years War, in 1346-1347, most of the town’s men were in service at the siege of Calais. A French privateer ship, which was trying to enter the port, was frightened away by the sight of the grotesque horse dancing on Stepper Point at the harbour mouth.

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