Up Until the 1930’s Penzance and the other villages in Mount’s Bay were the scene of large May Day Celebrations centred around the blowing of large tin horns. The following text is from Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England:
“THE first of May is inaugurated with much uproar. As soon as the clock has told of midnight, a loud blast on tin trumpets proclaims the advent of May. This is long continued. At daybreak, with their “tintarrems,” they proceed to the country, and strip the sycamore-trees (called May-trees) of all their young branches, to make whistles. With these shrill musical instruments they return home. Young men and women devote May-day to junketing and picnics.”
“It was a custom at Penzance, and probably at many other Cornish towns, when the author was a boy, for a number of young people to sit up until twelve o’clock, and then to march round the town with violins and fifes, and summon their friends to the Maying”
“When all were gathered, they went into the country, and were welcomed at the farmhouses at which they called, with some refreshment in the shape of rum and milk, junket, or something of that sort. They then gathered the “May,” which included the young branches of any tree in blossom or fresh leaf.
The branches of the sycamore were especially cut for the purpose of making the “May-music.” This was done by cutting a circle through the bark to the wood a few inches from the end of the branch. The bark was wetted and carefully beaten until it was loosened and could be slid off from the wood. The wood was cut angularly at the end, so as to form a mouth-piece, and a slit was made in both the bark and the wood, so that when the bark was replaced a whistle was formed. Prepared with a sufficient number of May whistles, all the party returned to the town, the band playing, whistles blowing, and the young people singing some song”
Further Reading on the Traditions of Mayday in Penzance etc.: Penzance May Day Google Book Search.
Penzance May Horns Today
Since 2008 Penzance May Horns has been a regular event in the town once again. It is open to anyone to attend.
First Sunday of May meet at 7:45pm at the Tolcarne Inn in Newlyn.
We then walk, blowing horns and whistles, to Penzance. If you want to attend please bring a horn of any kind, a whistle or drum. Dress in Green or White clothes, or a combination of both. People often cover themselves in greenery or flowers. You will see during the evening 4 distinct figures. The Master of Ceromonies, The Lady of the May, The Lord of the May and “Old Ned” one of Penzance’s Guise Beasts.
Penzance May Horns is a Cornish Culture Association event, the same group that run this website.