Helston residents were well and truly woken by the ancient Hal-an-Tow procession this Wednesday Morning, as part of Flora Day.
The celebration includes dancing, loud chanting and singing, folk stories such as St Piran’s journey to Cornwall and St Michael defeating the Devil (in Helston, of course).
The pageant is recreated in seven different locations in the town and as the cast walk from one venue to the next, they make as much noise as possible with May horns, whistles and whatever else is handy ‘to wake up the town’.
Locals performed processional dances around the flower-covered streets throughout the day. Perhaps proving the ceremony’s effectiveness, the spring weather was very forgiving until noon.
The meaning of the name ‘Hal an Tow’ has been lost over time. That is until now, perhaps.
Research from the Merv Davey, ex Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow indicates that the term “Hal-an-Tow” refers to the florally decorated stick carried during the procession, with similar traditions being present across Europe to mark the beginning of May.
The stick was this year carried by the chief “oggy-er” (leader of the famous Cornish chant) Milo Perrin.
The basis of of this theory is from the complexities of Cornish language grammar. ‘Mutations’ as they are called, can sometimes change the initial letter of the next word, depending on gender or other rules.
The term for May Day in Cornish is ‘Kale Me’. The word for ‘day’ is jydh. If you were to say ‘jydh Kale me’ then the grammar rules change that to ‘jydh Hale Me’ . The Tow of the title is the stick, or indeed the whole tradition of parading with a decorated stick , so Hale Me Tow makes sense and in time became Hal an Tow, describing the specific tradition of using the stick for the celebration of May Day.
Jack Morrison has been participating in proceedings since he was at school, and this year played the part of the Crier, a position which he inherited from his former teacher, Howard Curnow, three years ago. Jack views the feast as more special than Christmas.
Jack told Cornish Stuff: “The Hal-an-Tow itself was considered to be too naughty by the Victorians. It was very drunken, disorderly, it was a world turned upside-down, with people causing trouble throughout the town all day.
It was a mob, a passionate thing working its way through the town. If you were found working, you’d be thrown in the river. The Victorians clipped its wings slightly. The current Hal-an-Tow is tied up with a rebirth of Cornish culture”
Although certain elements of Flora Day, like leading the Midday Dance, are reserved exclusively for those born in the town, the Hal-an-Tow is welcoming to all.
“Cousin Jacks and Jennies”, as well as those not of Cornish origin were welcomed in the crier’s speech which was read first in Cornish and then loosely translated into English.
“It was the only time you ever heard Cornish when I was growing up” remarked Jack.
Marion, who is not from Helston, participated as a wave carrying St Piran’s millstone. She told Cornish Stuff: “Once you do it once you want to do it year after year. I would recommend everyone have a go”.
Gillian Geer is the organiser of the Hal-an-Tow. Advising participants before they set off, she said: “You’ve got to walk as fast as you can and stay together. The Hal-an-Tow is a feeling. You are welcoming the summer, so be smiley. It’s not how well you sing; it’s how loud you sing!”
Rose, who took part as one of Mary Moses’ children, described it as “Noisy and not as serious as the other dances.”
Spotlight report of Flora Day: