Happy Furry Day!

If  you don’t have any connection with Cornwall, or more specifically the town of Helston, you may be forgiven for not knowing that today is Furry Day.

This has nothing to do with fur as such, nor with furry fandom (a subculture that is interested in anthropomorphic animals and is known for dressing in animal costumes – you can find your own links to Wikipedia or other sources if you want to follow that one up).  Instead it is St Michael’s Day, specifically as it is celebrated in Helston.  In this context, “furry” is pronounced to rhyme with “hurry” (or “curry”).

St Michael is one of three patron saints of Cornwall, as I mentioned back on St Piran’s Day (the third one being St Petrock, in case you don’t want to bother reading my earlier post).  He is quite unusual for a saint in that he is an archangel rather than a human. His principal feast day in the Western Church is Michaelmas, 29th September, but the Anglican diocese of Truro also celebrate 8th May as the feast of St Michael, Protector of Cornwall.  (The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Michael’s feast in November.)

The mainstay of Helston’s celebrations for St Michael is the Furry Dance, which is probably what gave Furry Day its name (“furry” is, apparently, thought to derive from the Cornish word fer, meaning “fair” or “feast”).  This is danced in a procession through the town, at several times throughout the day by different groups, accompanied each time by the Helston Town Band.  I don’t know the dance itself, but I am familiar with the tune, which is quite simple and mighty fine.

Apparently the Furry Dance is also sometimes known as the Flora, which is another historically attested form of the name, or as the (Cornish) Floral Dance, which isn’t.  The latter name seems to have originated when a London-based composer called Katie Moss visited Helston for Furry Day in 1911 and was inspired to write a song about it, set to (a slightly tweaked version of) the tune of the Furry Dance.  She published this as “The Floral Dance” and confusion has reigned ever since.

Another part of the Furry Day tradition is the Hal-an-Tow Pageant, a mystery play with historical and mythical themes, featuring appearances by St George and (of course) St Michael, as well as Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.  Once again, I’m not familiar with the pageant, although I know several versions of a folksong called Hal-an-tow (including ones by the Oyster Band, the Albion Country Band and the Watersons) which is evidently based on it.

The Wikipedia article is somewhat vague about the origins of the Furry Day celebrations although it does claim (with a reference to a book on the subject) that it is one of Britain’s oldest surviving folk traditions.  One of these years, I’d love to get down to Helston for Furry Day and experience the tradition for myself.

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