A town-wide celebration such as Furry Day at Helston, Cornwall, is made up of many parts, but the core of the public day is organized by a special Committee and consists of a series of processional dances through the streets of the town—and sometimes through the shops and houses lining the streets—led by the Town Band playing the Furry Dance tune. At seven o'clock in the morning on 8 May there is a relatively informally dressed dance, previously called the Servants' Dance, in which those who will be busy working for the rest of the day join in. Later in the morning is the Children's Dance (introduced in 1922) with local schoolchildren dressed in white but with coloured headbands for the girls and school ties for the boys. The Twelve o'clock Dance is the best known, with women in colourful summer dresses and big hats and their partners in grey top-hats and black morning-coats, and all with a lily-of-the-valley buttonhole. This dance is led by the Mayor or other local dignitary and participation is only by invitation of the Committee. An elegant ball is held in the evening.
Other aspects of the custom include the Halan Tow, and trips to the local countryside to gather greenery to decorate the town. The Halan-Tow has a less than respectable past. This was a none-too-sober perambulation of the town, singing a song in which the words of the verses are sufficiently obscure to have excited the vivid imaginations of amateur folklorists for decades—concerning as they do Robin Hood, the Spaniards, Saint George, and Aunt Mary Moses—but whose chorus is pretty clear, given the time of year:For we were up as soon as any day, OAnd for to fetch the summer homeThe summer and the May, OFor summer is a come, OAnd winter is a gone, O.
This part of the proceedings had been dropped in the 19th century, but was deliberately reintroduced, in suitably cleaned-up form, in 1930 at the instigation of the Helston Old Cornwall Society, and is now acted out in the street in costume.
The earliest known reference to Helston's custom is in the Gentleman's Magazine (60: 1 (1790) 520), which identifies nearly all the essential elements which have survived to the present day, in particular the day-long event, bringing in the greenery, the Hal an Tow song and procession, dancing in the streets and houses, and, most importantly, the juxtaposition, if not actual combination, of the rougher working-class elements and those of the more elegant and refined gentry. Without this latter description it would have been easy to dismiss the ‘elegance’ of the modern custom as a prime example of Victorian prettification of the customary calendar.
The custom has had its ups and downs and at certain points in the 19th century almost disappeared. It is certain that its continued existence owes a lot to key individuals (such as those who formed the Old Cornwall Society) who regarded such customs as essential to the area's identity and who lent their vocal support at opportune moments. Certainly, since the turn of the 20th century, the custom has gone from strength to strength. There has been much argument about the derivation of the name—or rather names—given to the custom. It seems clear that the word furry is a dialect term related to ‘fair’. The local parish church is dedicated to St Michael, and 8 May being St Michael's Day argues for furry day as meaning little more than the fair day, commonly held throughout England on the day of the local patron saint. The word flora or floral, used by locals and visitors alike, may have been introduced by early ‘authorities’ who liked to link our customs with Roman festivals, but the word so well sums up the spring greenery and flowers which decorate the town, and its inhabitants, that its aptness probably guarantees its continuance.