On 8th May every year (or Saturday 7th if the 8th is a Sunday) the Cornish town of Helston is home to ‘The Furry Dance’. A Gentleman’s Magazine report in 1790 tells us that: ‘At Helstone (sic), a genteel and populous borough town in Cornwall, it is customary to dedicate the 8th of May to revelry (festive mirth, not loose jollity). It is called the Furry-day, supposed Flora’s day; not, I imagine, as many have thought, in remembrance of some festival instituted in honour of that goddess, but rather from garlands commonly worn on that day. In the morning, very early, some troublesome rogues go round the streets with drums, or other noisy instruments, disturbing their sober neighbors, and singing parts of a song, the whole of which nobody now recollects. About the middle of the day they collect together to dance hand-in-hand round the streets, to the sound of the fiddle playing a particular tune, which they continue to do till it is dark. This is called a ‘faddy’.
In the afternoon, the gentility go to some farmhouse in the neighborhood to drink tea, syllabub, etc., and return in a Morris-dance to the town, where they form a faddy, and dance through the streets till it is dark, claiming the right of going through any person’s house, in at one door and out at the other. And here it formally used to end, and the company of all kinds to disperse quietly to their several habitations, but latterly, corruptions have in this, as in other matters, crept in by degrees.’.
Many things have changed since this piece was written but the day still sees a 7 a.m. dance; a Hal-an-Tow pageant at 8 a.m.; children’s dance at 10 a.m.; a midday dance which replicates the earlier dance of the gentry and their ladies. All wear Lily of the Valley sprigs – the gentlemen wearing it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wearing it upside down on the right. The day ends with an evening dance at 5 p.m.
It is one of the oldest British customs still practiced today but the modern variant of the dance holds few similarities with the original, having been revived long after the event had died out. Traditionally, the dancers wear Lily of the Valley, which is Helston’s symbolic flower. The gentlemen wear it on the left, with the flowers pointing upwards, and the ladies wear it upside down on the right. Lily of the Valley is worn on Flora Day by dancers, bandsmen, Flora Day stewards and by those who are “Helston-born”.