Sandy’s Garden ... The Helston Furry Day

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Every year, on May - unless that happens to be a Sunday or a Monday, in which case the event is celebrated on the previous Saturday - the village of Helston in Cornwall holds its Furry Day.

Well, some call it the Furry Day; others call it the Floral Day; and there are those who term it the Flora Day. It has been celebrated in the village for centuries and may well have its origins in a pre-Christian festival to mark the coming of Spring, although the choice of date … 8 May … is almost certainly Christian in origin, for that is the date on which Helston commemorates its patron saint, Saint Michael the Archangel, who is also regarded as the Protector of Cornwall. Indeed, the names Furry, Floral and Flora may all be corruptions of a Cornish word meaning a fair or a festival, so that the 8th of May is actually the festival day for St. Michael.

Be that as it may, we would probably not know about the Furry Day were it not for a professional violinist, pianist and concert singer called Kate … or Katie …Moss, who wrote the music and lyrics for a song she called “The Floral Dance” after visiting Helston in 1911. The tune is based on an old Cornish air and was first recorded in 1912 by the Australian baritone Peter Dawson. My parents actually had a scratched 10” 78 rpm bakelite record of this very recording. However, the song became an unlikely hit for the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band in 1977 when it rose to second spot in the Christmas chart, becoming even better known when Terry Wogan released his version of “The Floral Dance” the next year; and this is why it is still quite well known to middle-aged and older people today.

The residents of Helston make quite a thing of Furry Day, the women dressing in long, colourful dresses and large, fancy hats, while the men don top hats and morning coats, with a lily-of-the-valley buttonhole; and I’d like to look at the link between lily-of-the-valley and the Furry Dance.

To start with, the month of May is named after Maia, the goddess of growth, increase, fields, and Spring and a goddess associated in mythology with lily-of-the-valley. We would expect a pagan festival held early in May to be linked with the goddess Maia for, although only women were allowed to worship her, her role in promoting the healthy growth of crops with the assurance of a good harvest would certainly not have been overlooked by the men! The plant is native to continental Europe and was probably known here from at least Roman times, although there seems to be no record of it having been cultivated in Britain before the fifteenth century. The flowers are thought by many to look like cups which the fairies have hung up while dancing; and this is why lily-of-the-valley is known as Fairy Cups by some. It is also supposed that the cup-like flowers assume the properties of bells and ring prettily when the fairies sing. Curiously for a plant which is thought to protect a garden in which it is planted … and the associated home …from evil spirits, it is considered unlucky to bring it inside the house – but don’t tell that to any of the many brides who will include the flowers in their bouquets. Nor would it be a good idea to tell them that it is supposed to spring up on the graves of people who were executed for crimes they had not committed. Best to let brides continue to believe that lily-of-the-valley is a symbol of humility, purity, and sweetness.

Our ancestors used lily-of-the-valley in the treatment of melancholy, depression, epilepsy, and stroke; and it was mixed with lavender and peppercorns and boiled to produce a decoction which was used to bring someone to their senses. Don’t tell the bride that either!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society