Few people spend time in Cornwall without going to a festival - and the Duchy has plenty on offer, writes historian Alan M Kent in his new book The Festivals of Cornwall: Ritual, Revival, Re-invention
Cornwall’s festival fiesta
Most people in Cornwall will know about Flora Day at Helston, the May Day Obby Oss celebrations at Padstow and even the Golowan Festival at Penzance. But who knows the Bodmin Riding, the Black Prince Flower Boat Procession or the Marhamchurch Revels?
In his compendious The Festivals of Cornwall, author
Alan M. Kent reckons the Cornish celebrate more festivals than any other western European people. We are, he says a permanent ‘festive’ state – and every day of the Cornish calendar is circled with dancing, dressing up and drinking. And with so many reasons to be cheerful or reflective, pious or sporting, he says to be Cornish is also a yearning to be rebellious – at least for some of the time. And it’s at festival time that the community turns ‘topsy-turvy’, when daily routine is suspended and communal revels prevail.
Where did so many of our festivals begin, and why? Navigating a path through folklore and historical half-truths, Alan Kent paints a vivid and entertaining picture of Paganism and Christianity at work, how the two came to co-exist and how, over aeons Christianity mostly triumphed. That multitude of Cornish saints? They once were localised Pagan deities Christianised in the early Middle Ages and who had their own feast days. Midsummer Bonfires?
‘We are in a permanent festive state: every day of the Cornish calendar is circled with dancing, dressing up and drinking.’
Pagan. Crying of the Neck harvest ceremony? Pagan. And then there’s Methodism and the Methodists who gate-crashed the more inebriate of the festivities and stopped all the fun. Or did they? The author argues that the Methodist movement, rather than kyboshing traditional activity did little more than absorb and adapt the Cornish festival scene. Methodism added its own dates to the calendar too, creating new festivals such as Tea Treats and Chapel Anniversaries – in it’s own a fascinating sub-plot of festive Cornwall’s bigger story.
The county’s once favourite sport, hurling, introduced by the Normans, was so much a part of the Cornish identity that Cornishmen played a game in London (imagine the travelling!) in front of Oliver Cromwell, hoping to convince the Lord Protector that it was neither ‘silly’ nor ‘ungodly’. He was no more convinced than the Methodists 200 years later and yet the game survives; in St Ives where he (rarely she) who holds the ball at midday is the winner of five shillings. Did you know that the ball is most likely a symbol of fertility? Kent’s research also suggests a commonly-held belief that he who first caught the ball would turn mad. In contrast to the rough and tumble of violent games nineteenth century Methodism introduced Tea Treats. In 1835 in Morvah the day comprised of children walking hand in hand up a local hill to sing a hymn (Lord how thy Wonders are Displayed) and finishing with tea and cake – or ‘revel bun’ – served by the church elders.
For those of us who are proud to say we are Cornish (or adopted Cornish) The Festivals of Cornwall hits a happy note, describing how lost over time, many of our festivals have reappeared and been reinvented as our communities wake up to their value, not just as tourist attractions but as a day or two when ordinary life can be put aside to dress up and dance, sing and make music and make up with the neighbours. As Kent says, some of our favourite festivals – Cornish Gorsedd, Tom Bawcock’s Eve at Mousehole and Lafrowda Day at St Just-in-Penwith – our recent revivals to add to a new generation celebrating surfing and new music and in their own way preserving a timeless need to enjoy life. As the book says, without revelry and celebration life would be very dull.
The Festivals of Cornwall: Ritual Revival Re-invention
Dr Alan M. Kent, £25
Redcliffe Press redcliffepress.co.uk
LEFT: The Man Engine the largest mechanical puppet ever to be built in Britain at his full height of ten metres on Lemon Quay Truro.© Cornish Picture Library / Kevin Britland
RIGHT: Close up of the BlueOss & Teaser performing during Obby Oss MayDay celebrations Padstow© Paul Watts/ Cornish Picture Library
BELOW: Close up of The Principal Dance in Church Street on Flora Day in Helston © Paul Watts/ Cornish Picture Library