- 21st December - Winter solstice
- First procession: Top of Causeway Head before dusk
Main procession: 6pm Chapel Street
The Montol Festival is an annual celebration in Penzance, Cornwall, UK, held on the 21st of December each year. It was started in 2007, and the people who originated the event were also involved in the midsummer Golowan Festival. From 2014-2023, Montol was run by the Cornish Culture Association, a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. As of September 2023 we're now registered as a Community Interest Company with a new management team.
The festival is a revival - or reinterpretation - of many of the traditional Cornish midwinter customs and Christmas traditions which were formerly practised in and around the Penzance area - and were once common to much of Cornwall. Montol is held on the traditional date of the feast of St Thomas the Apostle, usually the 21st of December, which always coincides with the winter solstice.
What's it all about?
The Montol Festival is a six-day arts and community festival. It celebrates the midwinter solstice, Cornish midwinter traditions of the past, and customs associated with Old Christmas. The Festival culminates in Montol Eve on the 21st of December every year. Montol is now in its 16th year, and the 2023 event will bring with it a host of new visitors and Guise Guild participants.
Through the week there are a host of activities: lantern and mask-making workshops, strolling bands, carol services, storytelling, Mummers Plays, and as an essential part of the mix, late night shopping in Penzance. During the main event on December 21st, the people of Penzance take part in many of the Cornish traditional customs of Midwinter and Christmas. These include Guise dancing, with many people wearing traditional masks, adopting disguise and sporting 'mock formal' costume. Several fire beacons are lit throughout the town, leading up to the chalking and burning of the Cornish Yule log (the 'Mock'), and the dancing that follows.
When and Where?
Fire performers and 'Obby 'Osses, guise beasts and musicians: all these will be out and about from midday on 21st December - around Market Jew Street, Green Market and Causewayhead, to be joined by Christmas carol singers, choirs, dancers and a plethora of stall-holders. We invite everyone to join us - for the family-friendly events during the day and early evening, and an edgier, adult menu of guild-led misrule as the darkness deepens. When it gets late, anything can happen.
All afternoon: festive market centred around the Market House, with a range of stalls and entertainment
|4pm||The sundown procession makes its way down from the top of Causewayhead|
|6pm||Main procession from the top of Chapel Street leading to the Midwinter Fire|
|6.20pm||The Midwinter Fire at the Princess May Recreation Ground, with music, dancing and the burning of the dying sun|
|From 7pm||The Guise Guilds at large in Chapel Street - prepare to be amazed!|
|9:30pm||Carol singing and the lighting of the torches outside the Union Hotel|
|10pm||Late night procession down Chapel Street, Chalking the Mock and fire, followed by dancing in the Quay area|
How can you take part?
The theme of Montol Eve is 'Light and Darkness', and - on this longest night of the year - everyone is encouraged to unite with us in defeating darkness and celebrating the annual return of light. There are, of course, the showpiece fire-lit processions to watch - but there's also much, much more.
While you're out and about, take a few minutes here and there to enjoy listening to traditional music and singing, to watch amazing performers, or to join in with the singing of traditional carols. And if all that isn't enough for one evening, you can support local businesses by enjoying what's on offer from the pubs, restaurants and food stalls.
Fancy a bit of dressing up? Here are some of the costume traditions associated with Guise groups - take your pick of:
|Mock Formal||Dressing in fine clothes, sometimes described as gentleman's hand-me-downs. This costume often reflected clothes from past times, and could include top hats and bow ties. This option was often chosen by poorer sections of society, symbolically 'mocking' the richer elements: Montol is definitely not Helston Flora. Masks or lace veils were used to hide the face.|
|Rags and Ribbons||Costume covered in 'tatters' or ribbons, often highly coloured and ornate.|
|Animal imagery||In some places this was very common. In Penzance Guisers would dress as bulls or horses, and in St Ives, there is evidence of people wearing deer horns. Animal masks were also part of this tradition.|
|Cross dressing||Extremely common from the 16th Century onward in some parts of West Cornwall and before that in the Isles of Scilly. Men dressed as women and vice versa - Montol is a great opportunity to try on a new identity and see how it fits.|
|Hiding the face||Masks were traditionally worn, but in the present day they must not be character masks or horror masks: leave Batman, Donald Duck (and Donald Trump) at home. Lace veils were a traditional option in the St Ives and Mounts Bay areas and were sometimes decorated with sequins. Faces were also blackened or coloured, traditionally using burnt cork - although this is not recommended to present day participants.|
The Full Montol: more about the traditions of Montol Eve
During Montol Eve large Guiser processions can be seen throughout the town, carrying lanterns, and wearing masks and traditional costumes. Guise (or sometimes Geese, Goosey or Guize) dancing is much more than stepping out to music. It is a midwinter celebration of mischief and includes processions, drama, song, music and games. The theme is 'topsy turvey' or role reversal - hence the Montol banner featuring the 'World Turned Upside Down'. But for most participants, the main focus of the tradition is disguise - the aim of participants being to step aside from their everyday identities, escaping identification of their familiar forms and features by means of elaborate costumes and masks.
Most modern Guise Dance groups feature Cornish Dance as a major part of their entertainment.
Another very important part of Guise dancing is music. Although this is often taken from the large canon of Cornish tunes, it is also common to find records of groups using carefully selected tunes to create an atmosphere - either upbeat and positive, or dark and foreboding. In the 20th century, popular tunes were often played on kazoos or harmonicas. In some places (such as Stithians), Guise dancers adopted Wassail or Warzail songs.
"Meantime, the geese-dance gains upon the night,
In all the ride of mimic splendour bright;
As urchin bands display the pageant show,
In tinsel glitter, and in ribbons glow"
All these things can be seen at Montol.
The symbols of Montol are the spear and square of St Thomas, and the 'Sun Resplendent' - a traditional image used by Guise dancers. A great deal of Cornish dance and music is performed during the evening, and often (as at Golowan) in an improvised and impromptu manner, with bystanders welcomed to join in. It's a great way of getting involved - and keeping warm.
Mock Leaders and Guilds
Early in the evening on Montol Eve, a Lord of Misrule is chosen from among the masked revellers. The Lord of Misrule leads the main processions and has certain honorary functions. Guise Dance parties would often include symbolic Mock leaders who would embody the misrule and revelry of the feast. These were often selected by games of chance or lots, and would be surrounded by Mock state or civic officials.
A number of other 'Mock leader' customs can also be seen during the evening, with chosen individuals such as the Master of the Corn-Market being followed by 'guilds' such as the Corn-Market revellers. These "guild" groups take their inspiration from descriptions of similarly-named groups from early in the 19th century. The present-day guilds are still based on the tradition of friends getting together in small groups, and producing costumes (and in some cases stage props) linked to themes. Last year there were 14 such groups including the Corn-Market Revellers, the Egyptians, the Physicians - and two guilds from out of town, representing CCA events in Penryn and Redruth.
Later on, the 'Montol 'Oss' puts in an appearance in several locations throughout the town, culminating in the ceremony of the 'chalking of the Mock'. The Mock is the Cornish Yule Log; a member of the public is chosen to mark the Mock with a stick man. This traditionally represents either Old Father Time marking the death of the year, or the celebration of the birth of Christ, 'the light of the world' - like many of the customs we hold dear at this time of year, this is a feature that everyone is welcome to interpret in their own way. Some even suggest that the ancient Cornish imagery may have some connection to the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
The lighting of the Mock (Yule Log), traditionally made from ash wood, is another old Cornish tradition. A stick figure is chalked on the log which is then thrown on the fire as a symbol of the death of the old year - and the birth of the new. This final ceremony mirrors the midsummer Golowan Eve event following the fireworks - both feature music, dancing, and public celebration at a pivotal point in the astronomical year.
The name 'Montol' also pays homage to Cornish tradition. Edward Lhuyd, in his 1700 MSS of vocabulary in the Cornish language, states that Montol means 'Winter Solstice' Interestingly, he later translates the word as 'balance' (in Latin, Trutina - a set of scales).
But is it a genuine tradition?
That depends on what you mean by genuine! It is true that there is no historical basis for the actual processions prior to 2007 - and no historical references to a Lord of Misrule in Penzance or Cornwall. The Festival was first established in 2007 and has been going from strength to strength ever since - and that will be enough for many people. But are you one of those who delight in delving deeper? If so, you might be interested to read that many of the customs that make up the present-day Montol Festival do have a historical basis.
Inspiration has come from the work of notable Cornish antiquarians, and also from the latest research into the subject. The venerable and respected A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, in his book Cornish Homes and Customs, describes the Guise dance processions and performances of 1831 as, "like an Italian carnival," noting that, "everyone including the rich and the great came masked and disguised on to the streets." And so, in the same spirit, the festival welcomes 'one and all' today.
A detailed description of the costumes worn by Penzance Guise dancers is given by William Bottrell in his book Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870-80): "During the early part of the last century," he begins, referring to the years after 1700, "the costume of the guise dancers often consisted of such antique finery as would now raise envy in the heart of a collector." According to Bottrell, the 'chief glory' of male apparel was the, "cocked hats... surmounted with plumes and decked with streamers and ribbons." And the girls and women? They gloried in "steeple crowned hats, stiff-bodied gowns, bag skirts or trains and ruffles hanging from their elbows." Today, the processions feature spectacular and imaginative costumes, in which many of the elements described by Bottrell can still be seen. Don't want to be left out, but not sure what to wear? Why not just scout round the fabric and charity shops, get creative on those long December evenings, and bring your own "plumes, streamers and ribbons", your own "stiff bodied gown", to Montol this year?
Some of the Christmas traditions of Cornwall which have been revived as parts of Montol were common up until World War II, and the Festival is descended from the same traditions as the masked ball, the Christmas play and - as A K Hamilton Jenkin suggests - parades such as the famous Venice Carnival. Unlike the Golowan festival, it is based entirely on Cornish traditions that seem to date from mediaeval times.
And another fact that may surprise you: Guise dancing was mainly practised by local Methodists, who apparently found that disguise made it easier to relax and have fun!
What else does the Cornish Culture Association do?
The Association runs a range of other events throughout the year. In Penzance, look out for Candlemas, May Horns, Guldize (Harvest Festival) and Allantide (Halloween). Further afield, you can enjoy St Piran's day at St Buryan, Penryn Mock Mayor, Redruth Wassail, and Boscastle Old Christmas.
In addition to these events, there are two community music projects. At Montol and other CCA events you will hear the distinctive Raffidy Dumitz Band, which also plays at St Piran's Day in Redruth, Trevithick Day in Camborne, Golowan in Penzance and Goldsithney Charter Fair. Listen out as well for the CCA Singers, who specialise in traditional Cornish songs and carols - especially those not sung elsewhere.
If you want to support us in bringing light and celebration to Penzance at the turn of the year, you are welcome to dress up and join in. And next year, why not join the Raffidy Dumitz Band as a dancer or instrumentalist? It is a community band, tea-time practices are held on Saturdays all year round, and everyone is welcome. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Although the CCA is grateful to Penzance Town Council for awarding a grant to cover some of the expenses involved, Montol could not take place without the generosity of individual supporters. If you would like to be one of them, you can make a donation. Alternatively, donate on the day (look out for the buckets).
Thanks to all supporters and participants, who give their time and money to make Montol happen - and to keep Penzance shining in splendour, even in the darkest part of the year.
Thanks also to our web developers altcom for donating many hours of design time, and to our intrepid photographers who capture the spectacle in all its insane glory.
- Paul Betowski
- Greg Martin - The Cornishman
- Lee Palmer
- Lee Palmer
- Lee Palmer
- Cam De Pete
- Cam De Pete
- Lee Palmer