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Cornish customs on May Day

Posted in British Towns, Customs, Nature on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

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

Helston, picture, image, illustration

Near Helston, Cornwall

A colourful and joyous festival takes place on 8th May every year in the small Cornish town of Helston. Known as the furry (or flora) dance, it is based upon a legend. This tells of a fierce battle between the town’s patron saint, Michael, and the devil, for possession of the town. When St. Michael won the battle by hurling the devil into nearby Looe Pool, the people of the town were supposed to have danced for joy.

However, there was a festival at Helston before Christianity came to Britain. In former times, it is believed to have taken place on 1st May, the day of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, during which fires were lit and men leapt through the flames. This marked the beginning of the second half of the Celtic year.

Parts of the old festivals survived, so that the modern festival has many origins. The decoration of the streets with branches of sycamore and beech, and the chasing out of evil spirits from people’s houses, probably originates from the time when people were even more superstitious than they are today and believed that this was a way of gaining protection.

We see a Celtic touch in the form of May princesses, and Christianity is represented by the legend acted out by St. Michael and the devil. Legendary figures are represented in the persons of St. George and the dragon, Robin Hood, Maid Marion and Friar Tuck.

The festival takes place at a traditional time for rejoicing. May means the end of winter, the warmth of spring and the approach of summer. It was always a time for celebrating the fertilisation of the crops on which man and his animals depended.

Industrialisation has robbed much of Europe of its pastoral nature. But the success of our civilisation still depends upon the skill of the world’s farmers and their dependence upon the weather and the seasons – the very things about which the May revellers rejoiced in times gone by.

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