As we grow ever closer to 25th December, it seems only fitting that this week’s blog post looks at the elements of what, historically, has made a Cornish Christmas.
A.K. Hamilton Jenkin’s Cornwall and the Cornish, written over eighty years ago, discusses at length the singing of traditional Cornish Christmas carols, one of which has the unforgettable chorus of: “Come let us taste your Christmas Beer, That is so very strong” and a somewhat more sober sounding one entitled As I Sat On A Sunny Bank. Another Cornish tradition involved the burning of ‘the stock’ (sometimes also known as ‘the block’ or ‘the mock’), where a large log, often with a drawing of a man chalked on, would be lit by the charred remains from the previous year’s festive log. Cornish tradition, Jenkin reports, was for the stock to burn for three days.
One of the more widely known elements of a traditional Cornish Christmas is wassailing. This involves a family gathering around a bowl of spiced ale, each taking turn to take a drink. As the first sip of the drink is made, the cry “Woes hoel!” (“To your health” in Saxon) goes up. Poorer people also took part, taking a decorated bowl around the area, begging for money in order to purchase liquor for wassailing. The bowls were made of wood, and wrapped with furze blossom, flowers, ivy and ribbons. As they went around from door to door, they would sing a wassail song, The Mistress & Master Our Warzail Begin.
A Cornish Christmas would not be complete without Guise Dancing, which, it is believed by some, predates the establishment of Christianity in the UK. Guise Dancing sees many of the territory’s towns and villages come out to join in an ancient tradition of roaming through the streets in masked costumes. Colourful ribbons are attached to clothing and often ornate masks. The dances were often led, as Simon Reed reveals in his book The Cornish Traditional Year, by a Lord of Misrule. This would often lead to unusual acts taking place, such as arranging furniture so everything was put upside-down! There could also be an ‘Obby ‘Os known as Penglaze. Guise Dancing has enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in recent years as Cornish Culture has enjoyed a renaissance, particularly as part of the annual Montol Eve celebrations in Penzance, which now attracts thousands of visitors every December. Montol itself, historically was a festival of the winter solstice.
One further tradition is celebrated in Mousehole on 23rd December – Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Legend states that Bawcock saved the village from a famine, and so during the festival, a fish, potato and egg pie is served, with the fish heads protruding from the top. Today, this festival includes a lantern parade.
All that remains for me to say is to wish ‘One And All’ of my blog’s visitors:
NADELIK LOWEN! (Happy Christmas in Kernewek)
Hamilton-Jenkin, A.K. (1933): Cornwall And The Cornish: David & Charles: Newton Abbot
Reed, Simon (2012): The Cornish Traditional Year: Troy Books: London