December is the time of the year when our days are at their shortest and darkest. When it seems that our little world is more night than day. But the Winter Solstice, 21st December, marks the turning of the year. The return of the sun! Celebrations marking this returning of light and warmth have been part of our culture for thousands of years.
Penzance’s Montol is a revival of those ancient celebrations. It is a modern version of a festival which was once held annually in the town until it fell out of favour in the 1930s. There are some festivities in Cornwall that still retain a true flavour of their pagan roots. Such as the rather madcap Padstow Obby Oss. The Montol is another, it holds on to an ancient, much darker remembrance of our ancestor’s beliefs.
This year was my first visit to the Montol. And I have to say I was satisfactorily entertained and bewitched by it all. The costumes were wonderful and felt both outlandishly fun and somehow darkly rooted in the past. The processions were colourful yet slightly sinister, complete with a drums, pipes, fiddles, a dragon and a fire-eater. The whole scene was a blend of the traditional with a kind of modern steam-punk twist.
The first procession started at dusk and the revelling continued late into the night. There were spontaneous fireworks and a man with a mask and headdress made entirely from cabbage leaves. At one point a huge paper Mache sun was doused in lighter fluid and set alight while the crowd danced around it.
For me this was Cornwall at it’s balmy best. Yes it did feel a bit disorganised and haphazard at times but it was joyful because of this. There were less crowds here than at other similar events and I think this made me really feel part of it all. This was the Cornish celebrating life in the depths of winter in their own slightly mental but utterly unique way.
The Montol may seem playful and perhaps even silly to some but I think we can all identify with its message in the same way our ancestors did – the sun is returning, the darkest days are over and there is on the horizon the hope of a new spring.
For more stories of Cornish festivals try: Helston Flora Day: through my eyes or Celebrating the Rather Eccentric Mr Knill
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6 thoughts on “Montol – Winter Solstice in Penzance”
Definitely my December high point, that other tinselly confection of festivals that those strange non-Cornish do later in December is the mental one.
Haha Mr Humphreys agreed!! 🙂
It’s interesting to read your impression of Montol and to see that you enjoyed the festival and all its wonders. I’m pretty sure I can see my hat in some of your photos – I was one of the people in costume playing in the band – one of the “guise dancers”.
Montol itself doesn’t have any antiquity at all – it was created in 2007 to provide a counterpoint to Golowan held close to midsummer. It is supposed to be a celebration of old Cornish midwinter customs – the masked people are guise dancers, an ancient custom related to mumming that is traditionally practiced during the twelve days of Christmas. The fire at the end of the night is supposed to be the “Chalking of the Mock” where a log from last year’s Yule fire is inscribed with a stick figure and then burnt – for luck presumably.
The burning of the sun is a new practice, which I think steals the limelight away from the old traditions. All traditions were new once though, although the organisers need to better communicate what’s new and what’s old. Guise dancing is fascinating in its own right, with costumes, plays, games, dancing and music, all practiced for many hundreds of years in west Cornwall. All villages had groups of guise dancers at some point or other – all all totally civic, albeit frowned on by the non-conformist authorities.
Montol in its current incarnation can seem very pagan (and many pagans are involved – as are Christians and other religious groups!), even if what it aims to represent is something that used to happen spontaneously for entertainment to bring light, laughter and enjoyment by people in the darkest time of the year.
Join in next year – everyone is welcome!
Thank you Tom! 🙂 I will certainly be coming next year! And thank you for the extra information! I throughly enjoyed myself!
I love the folk of Penzance, any excuse for a party! I was pretty sure that Montol was a counter-point of Golowan and thanks to Tom for confirming that, looks brilliant and I’m going to get there next year!
Are you off to Mousehole for Tom Bowcocks eve tomorrow?