CEREMONY AND CELEBRATION : TWO ‘OSSES - ONE TRADITION.
Throughout the world communities carry out celebrations that are special to the people in those places. They have often taken place for so long that the origins have become obscured. This is true of the Padstow May Day celebrations, which are not unique, but have retained a special character that sets them apart. The man beneath the gown wearing the fearsome mask portrays a certain menace. Another personality. A sense of magic and of time standing still electrifies the atmosphere on this day. How old is it? Pre- Christian ritual or rustic Elizabethan fundraiser? Who knows? More likely fragments of both, surviving because a community refused to let it die, emerging in the 21st century as a symbol of community spirit in an ever-changing world. Listen to the words of the song "Unite and unite and let us all unite for summer is acome unto
WHAT PEOPLE WEAR
White tops and trousers once only worn by a few ex sailors have become the standard dress for both parties. The piratical look favoured by the Old ‘Oss party was introduced in the 1950’s. The wearing of spring flowers, the flags the greenery and the Maypole are all part of the May Day experience.
Cowslips have a special significance and are much in demand in the run up to the day. Once gardens were raided for tulips etc. but thankfully such anti-social behaviour is a thing of the past. (well almost!)
"With the merry ring adieu the joyful spring" the song goes and at times the ’Oss’ dies a symbolic death only to leap up with renewed vigour. Ancient Fertility Rite some say, and don’t forget it is said that if a maid is seen caught under the gown she will become pregnant before the year is out. Who can argue with such a potent image?
The "GREAT WAR" 1914-1919 was a time of change for people everywhere. In many places the old customs died with the men on the battlefield. Here in Padstow the mood of survival gave encouragement for a new ‘Oss party to emerge, based on a previous Blue Ribbon ‘Oss with a patriotic red, white and blue ribbon round the rim of the gown and on the hat. It was also called the Armistice or Peace ‘Oss. The mask of this ‘Oss was slightly different too, a beard distinguished it from the original Old ‘Oss.
THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
Today the friendly rivalry between the two enthusiastic groups helps to ensure the future of this special custom. Tourists flock to witness the spectacle, but it is not for them that it continues. This is Padstow’s day and it is a tribute to both ‘Oss parties that it has essentially remained as such, in spite of this invasion.
THE MYSTERIOUS MASK It is not known where the design for the Mask came from. The details are carefully copied year after year, including the letters O B that have long since lost their significance.
The men who built the wooden ships and the men who sailed in them have left us their legacy. Is it mere fancy to suggest that the design may have been brought back from some other part of the world, where masked figures bearing an uncanny resemblance to our ‘Oss have been recorded?
Note the dramatic use of horse hair and sheep’s wool in the design along with the snappers at the front. These were once worked from inside the ‘Oss by means of a string. The message is clear "Hand over your coin or the beast may bite". Once, these funds were vital. Nowadays the money goes to charitable causes. The night singing remains unaccompanied, a simple and almost reverential start to the proceedings after the Church clock has struck midnight. The route, mainly in the old part of town, visiting well-known residents and singing appropriate verses. This part of the proceedings is led by the Old ‘Oss Party and begins outside the Golden Lion Inn, finishing somewhere "uptown" in the early hours.
"Rise up Alec Rickard and Gold be your ring, for Summer is acome unto day’
and bright is your bride as she lays down by your side, in the merry morning of May"
"I warn you Young Men everyone, for Summer is acome unto day,
to go into the greenwood and fetch your May home, in the merry morning of May.
"Now we fare you well and bid you all good cheer, for summer is acome unto day,
we’ll call once more unto your house before another year, in the merry morning of May".
THE GOWN OR SKIRT
The use of sailcloth to make the gown or skirt has been discarded for more modern material that is both lighter and easier to manage. Tar is no longer used as blacking (for the gown) and the paint now used no longer comes off on the hand when touched, considered a potent good luck symbol in its day! Today a touch is sufficient and the Osses will seek out elderly and infirm Padstonians in order that they may do this.
Recommended reading – Demons of Disorder – Dale Cockrell – Cambridge University Press.