Nadelik Lowen! Or, ‘Happy Christmas’, to any non-Cornish speakers. Even if you have just a fleeting knowledge of our history and culture, it will come as no surprise that we like to do things a little differently over the festive season. Cornwall has many unique traditions that offer a delightful twist on the usual carol singing and commercial overindulgence. Here are some of our favourites.
Culminating on the Winter Solstice (December 21), Montol is Penzance’s annual festival bringing together some unique midwinter traditions. Practices marking the death and rebirth of the sun were once found all over Cornwall, but today they can mostly be found in Penzance. The streets burst to life with fire performers, musicians, even an appearance from Penglaz, the famous skull-faced ’Obby ’Oss. Then there is Guise dancing, raucous masked celebrations led by the mischievous Lord of Misrule. Another tradition, dating back to the 19th century, is the performance of uproarious ‘Mummers’ plays’ about St George and the Turkish Knight.
In the 15th century, when tall ships would regularly bring their crews into Cornish harbours, mournful sea shanties would be heard drifting over the water. These work songs travelled inland and became an ingrained part of many fishing communities. And in the present day they finally breached the UK charts thanks to Nathan Evans’ TikTok sensation, ‘Wellerman’. Shanties are often performed over the festive period in traditional fishing pubs, such as the Cadgwith Cove Inn, Helston. The melancholic melodies and foot stamping rhythms certainly make a refreshing change from hearing ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ for the umpteenth time!
Hang a Cornish wreath for the winter solstice to welcome the God of Light and celebrate new life on December 20. To make your own Cornish Bush, you will need two circles of withy (willow), passing one through the other to create a three-dimensional shape. Next, weave holly and ivy around the withy before placing an apple on the top and hanging mistletoe from the bottom. Finally, a red candle is secured to the centre and the bush is hung from the ceiling.
Sans Day Carol
‘Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk, and Mary bore Jesus, all wrapped up in silk.’ This Cornish variation of ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ is named after the village of St Day where its words can be traced back to Thomas Beard, a villager in the parish. You can still hear the earliest recording captured by American folklorist James Madison Carpenter on wax cylinder in the 1930s. Slightly less crackly renditions will be ringing out of many Cornish church services over the Christmas period.
Gin and Cake
One lost tradition we would love to see reinstated is the serving of ‘mahogony’ gin with cake in shops. This Cornish liquor is made by mixing two parts gin to one part black treacle, warmed and melted. Traditionally given as a gift from traders to customers from the ‘lower classes’, the lure of alcoholic treacle would surely entice most people into shops this Christmas.