May Day is seen as the official start of the summer proper. The cold winter days have truly gone, and the unsettled spring ones have departed too. There are many strange and wonderful events in the UK around this time. The Obby Oss tradition in Padstow, Cornwall is certainly one of them.
The Oss itself is made from an oval frame which is painted black and covered with a black skirt. The ugly head is of a small horse that has a snapping mouth. The Rider parades ahead snapping at spectators and generally having a go at them. Around the Oss prances the Teasers brandishing a white club. Behind the Oss are a merry band of drummers and accordion players hammering out the Day Song. At times they slow it down and the Oss “dies” only for the band to strike up again and for the Oss to regain its energy. The Men of the town dance about to this and the Oss attempts to “capture” passing maidens, or at least those it thinks are maidens, under its skirts. Apparently, this is good luck for a Maiden.
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It’s thought that the tradition dates back to the 18th Century so it’s not that old but its origins are certainly seen as having older Pagan “Celtic” roots. Then again if you see the words Celtic and Pagan describing something that generally means “we don’t know”. The whole thing starts at Midnight on May Eve when everyone assembles outside the Golden Lion Inn to sing a rousing rendition of the “Night Song”. This is basically a song about how, on the 1st May, the men of the town are finding their mojo and will be preparing to tempt the young maidens of the town with their manliness as it’s spring. It also contains a line about how this job will be easier should they get a free beer and has nothing to do with the fact they’re outside a pub when they sing it.
In the morning the town is festooned with Flags and flowers to welcome in the new season and the end of winter. The Maypole, itself a sign of fertility, is made ready and then the Obby Oss procession can proceed. Actually, it’s two processions each one led by an Oss (so I suppose it’s Obby Ossi?) One starts from one end of the town and one from the other. The overall objective is to parade through the town until both reach the Maypole. Two very important points to note. Firstly, you can’t just turn up and join in, you or your family have got to have lived in Padstow for at least two generations. The other one is that this whole process takes about 12 hours to get to the Maypoles so it’s very much a long haul.
By late afternoon the Maypole is reached, and a dance around it is done. The Oss’s dance together!