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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

Padstow 'Obby 'Oss, Cornwall

Cornwall, like the past, is a foreign country - they do things differently there. One of those things is the May Day 'obby 'oss , or hobby horse, a tradition since...
The origins of the custom are long lost. Some think the horses (for there are two nowadays, and in the relatively recent past there were several more) are a celebration of the return of the Celtic god of the sun, Bel. Others say the whole thing arose in Elizabethan times, as a way of raising a few bob for a bit of a party. And there is even a legend that the horse began when local women donned a weird costume to frighten off potential French invaders while their menfolk were away fishing. It matters little.
The horses themselves are black cloth constructions, hooped at the bottom and slung over the head of a man who wears a rather gruesome mask and pointy hat. The hat bears the letters OB, but what these signify is as unclear as the origin of the event. At the front of the black costume is the representation of a horse's head, at the rear its tail.
There are two horses now, one - the so-called Old 'Oss - whose supporting team of white-clad musicians and dancers sport red favours and go for a piratical look; the other, the Blue Ribbon 'Oss, which may or may not be descended from earlier versions. So both claim the greater antiquity in a friendly rivalry that sees them meet in the town centre at the end of May Day, often to dance together.
The events begin on April 30, with the town being decorated with bunting and greenery. A traditional song which begins: "Unite and unite and let us all unite" is sung to foretell the return of the horse. Early on the morning of May Day the horses are taken from their 'stables', and their dancing begins. Drummers drum, musicians play, and the hobby horse dances in a somewhat random fashion around the town, taking in the harbour and the narrow streets of the town. The horses are accompanied by a dancing figure called the teaser, or teazer, who prods and goads the creature in its progress. At times the music dies down, and the horse sinks to the ground in a mock death, only to be resurrected in a moment. The horses can sometimes move with great alacrity, catching young women unawares and symbolically covering them in the floppy costume. Tradition has it that any maiden so caught will be pregnant within the year! Finally, as the day ends, a song is sung to mark the death of the creature until the following year.
May Day in Padstow , not unnaturally, has become a great tourist attraction, but for the local people it is an event of great significance, something that binds them together in a special community. But we should not get too po-faced about the whole affair, as it is a day of great enjoyment for those involved, and not a little imbibing for those with a taste for it

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