Visit Penzance in deepest, darkest winter and you may stumble across an extraordinary scene.
Revellers in mysterious gold or lace masks. Crow people. Horse and cow skulls. Extravagant cross-dressing. Feathers and flames. Jewels. Horns. Whooping. Cheering…
And then nothing.
The procession disappears into the night. The street returns to its crisp, wintery silence and you wonder if you dreamed or hallucinated the strange episode.
What you actually paid witness to was Montol, a winter solstice celebration unique to Penzance. It’s one of a number of idiosyncratic Penzance festivals plucked from our Celtic past. Together, they help to give our town a peculiarly attractive flavour like no other in Cornwall or England.
In this longer-than-usual post (because this subject surely deserves it), we’re going to look at the history behind these events and reveal why they’re enjoying a renaissance in modern Penzance. Join us – horned and bejewelled, if you like – on a journey into our curiously Celtic celebrations.
But first, a little history.
Penzance: A patchwork of Celtic, Christian and bohemian
For many, Cornwall is vastly different from Anglo-Saxon England for one very good reason: the Celtic connection. The Celts are believed to have settled our island in waves from around 600BC, during the Iron Age. Later, Romanisation occurred across much of the land and the Celtic influence diminished. However, in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, Celtic culture continued to flourish.
Over the centuries, the pagan Celtic customs of Cornwall merged with Christian ones. However, the Celtic memory lived on in these rituals and continues to resonate today, giving our ceremonies a unique flavour.
Simon Reed is a Cornish historian and leading campaigner for Cornish native culture. He is at the centre of many of the modern revivals of ancient Celtic festivals in Penzance. He says, ‘Cornwall carried on traditions that died away elsewhere, like midsummer bonfires and masking up for Christmas. We were so far away from the centre, we created our own unique Celtic culture.’
That culture now includes a potent blend of ingredients. Take ancient Celtic and Christian elements, add the flourishing festival traditions of eighteenth and nineteenth century Cornwall, and throw in a generous splash of modern bohemian Penzance. It’s an intoxicating brew.
No single religious – or even irreligious group, for that matter – owns these events. They are gloriously free-spirited. Says Simon, ‘If people want to be pagan or Christian, it’s fine. I would describe them as secular traditions, whatever your belief.’
Now the scene is set, on to the Penzance festivals themselves…
GOLOWAN: The Penzance festival that got BANNED!
Every June – when delicious, golden light stretches over the town – Penzance dances, sings and cavorts itself into a colourful frenzy. The occasion is the 10-day Golowan Festival, which culminates on Mazey Day.
This celebration of midsummer revives many old local traditions that were popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including ‘serpent dances’, market stalls, roaming bands, fireworks and a ‘mock mayor’ event.
You need to see it to believe it. With fabulous papier-mâché beasts and puppets, teeming crowds, musical performances in every nook and cranny, and fine food and flowing drinks, it’s a wild Celtic ride.
It was always thus further back in the past. In fact, some on-the-ground reports of Golowan in olden times will raise (and possibly singe) eyebrows even today.
John Ayrton Paris, who published Guide to the Mount’s Bay and the Land’s End in 1824, wrote, ‘…young and old of both sexes … assemble in the town and different villages of the bay with lighted torches … the stranger who issues forth to gain a closer view of the festivities of the town may well imagine himself suddenly transported into the regions of the Furies and infernal Gods … while the shrieks of the female spectators and the triumphant yells of the torch-bearers with their hair streaming in the wind and their flamboys whirling with inconceivable velocity are realities not calculated to dispel the illusion.’
What a description. And, for goodness’ sake, who wouldn’t want a flamboy whirling at an inconceivable velocity?
This was all considered far too much fun for common townspeople, of course. As far back as 1817, a former mayor of the town was so shocked by the rowdiness and bawdiness of proceedings he attempted to replace it with an ‘orderly’ exhibition outside of town. ‘Damn, that sounds boring,’ thought Penzance folk, who failed to turn up in droves.
Town bigwigs finally managed to foil the festival in the 1890s. Golowan Festival was banned.
So, for a long 100 years, Penzance marked the warmth and light of midsummer in a sulking, Golowan-less void. Then, in 1991, like a dancing phoenix with a recyclable pint glass in its hand, the festival rose once again. And a legend was reborn!
Find out more about Golowan and Mazey Day.
MONTOL: The exhilarating, eery and extremely Penzance festival
If Golowan is carnival by day, Montol is its flipside carnival of the night. Inaugurated in 2007 and culminating on 21 December (the longest night of the year), it celebrates the defeating of the darkness and the return of light.
This fairly new Penzance event is a revival, or reinterpretation, of many traditional Cornish midwinter customs that were once practiced in and around the town and surrounding areas.
The festival builds up with lantern-making, strolling bands and storytelling and culminates in the magnificently eccentric main procession. This lights up the night with fire beacons, music, the ceremonial burning of the yule log (known as the ‘mock’) and dancing in the quay area. The ‘guise dancing’ element is the part you’ll remember for years to come. Participants carrying lanterns cavort in elaborate disguises made of rags, ribbons, lace, skulls and sequins, to escape their everyday identities.
Says Simon Reed, who started the modern festival, ‘Montol means midwinter in late Cornish and it is a celebration of the Christmas traditions of Cornwall. What you’ll see at Montol are the kinds of things you would have seen at Christmas 90 years ago. Guise dancing is what people locally used to do during the 12 Days of Christmas. They would dress up in disguise and go house to house, and pub to pub. It’s a celebration of midwinter mischief and the world turned upside down. Rich people pretend to be poor; the poor pretend to be rich; men pretend to be women and women men.’
The origins, says Simon, are complex. The tradition may be linked to the baby Jesus turning the world upside down. Some people even suggest that much of the ancient Cornish imagery relates to the Roman festival of Saturnalia. However you interpret it, it’s a Celtic event through and through. Says Simon, ‘The Celtic connection is a huge .’
Find out more about Montol.
PENZANCE MAY HORNS: C’mon and feel the noise
You take Penzance as it comes. At dusk on the first Sunday in May, it’s not at all unusual to see crowds of boisterous, noisy townspeople following a giant crow called Ned across the Promenade from Newlyn to Penzance. Another day, another quirky and wonderful Penzance festival…
The May Horns Parade is closely associated with the Celtic festival of Beltane, which welcomes in the sun’s heat. Penzance folk promenade with Ned and blow horns to chase the devil of winter away.
For Simon Reed, reviving this festival – which was banned in the 1930s – had a personal element. He says, ‘For me, Penzance May Horns comes from my grandad’s memories of what he did on May Day. They would get the horns out and blow loudly to drive the devil out. Historical records show ancient pictures of horns on sale for this festival.’
The event starts just before sunset at the boundary between Penzance and Newlyn. At Lariggan River, revellers really let rip with their horns, as a reminder that this festival was once banned by the local council. (Warning: never stand between Penzance people and parading in unusual costumes and making a noise.)
The evening continues with a celebration of local culture, music, dancing and food.
ALLANTIDE: The Cornish Halloween
With the greatest respect to our American cousins, do you ever feel like our lovely old English Halloween has been bundled in a sack and whisked off, kicking and screaming, to Disneyland?
If so, you’ll want to hear about Penzance’s Allantide. This is the ‘Cornish Halloween’, with all the best bits of the traditional 31 October festival with some uniquely Penzance elements thrown in.
In olden times, the traditional Allantide focused on sweet red apples. Here’s a gorgeous description from Robert Hunt’s Popular Romances of the West of England (1902).
‘The shops in Penzance would display Allan apples, which were highly polished large apples. On the day itself, these apples were given as gifts to each member of the family as a token of good luck. Older girls would place these apples under their pillows and hope to dream of the person whom they would one day marry.’
The modern Penzance festival for Allantide celebrates the harvest (thus the apples), and the closing of the year and coming of darkness. As a result, the more familiar Halloween tropes of ghosts and bonfires feature too.
Although, to be honest, it’s less of the ghostly stuff and more a big party. Imagine your Halloween with evocative Celtic music, traditional turnip jack o’lanterns, fires, dancing and an odd, traditional game in which you catch apples in your mouth with a melting wax penalty for failure.
Don’t say we didn’t warn you…
GULDIZE: The small-but-perfectly-formed Penzance festival
We finish with Guldize, a little festival described as ‘a bit under the radar’ by Simon Reed, but no less lovely for it. First mentioned in 1602, in Richard Carew’s The Survey of Cornwall, this is the Cornish harvest festival. It took place at the end of the wheat harvest, traditionally on or near the autumn equinox in late September.
According to the historian AK Hamilton Jenkin, harvesters ate a vast feast which would include broiled pork and potatoes, and apple pie and cream, washed down (of course) with cider and spirits.
Since 2008, Guldize has attracted a small Penzance crowd of up to 100 people. Revellers proceed from the Yacht Inn at around 7.30pm, following the ‘crying of the neck’, where a sheaf of wheat formed into a corn dolly is held aloft. Revellers then dance their way to the Admiral Benbow pub to traditional harvest-time tunes, where a charity auction gets underway.
Some revellers wear traditional blue bonnets. Others even undertake a dance said to replicate the sowing and reaping process called, Simon tells us, cock in britches.
We wanted to find out more about the dance, but didn’t dare look it up on the internet…
And as the Guldize revellers fade away – quite possibly dipping into another local ale house – we hopefully leave you a little more bewitched by Penzance. As a famous writer almost said, ‘Penzance is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ We’d love it if you visited a Penzance festival and experienced something a little different with us…
Find out more about our beautiful Celtic port town at https://lovepenzance.co.uk/
Thanks to Simon Reed for his input in this article. He’s the author of The Cornish Traditional Year, published by Troy Books. Other sources include Penzance: The Biography by Michael Sagar-Fenton, https://www.cornwallheritage.com, https://www.transceltic.com, and The Royal Cornwall Museum website.
Note that our smaller festivals don’t currently have websites. However, you can search social media for updates of upcoming events.