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 feel 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.