The Montol Festival is an annual heritage, arts and community festival in Penzance, Cornwall held between the 16th and 22 December each year. The festival is a revival or reinterpretation of many of the traditional Cornish midwinter customs & Christmas traditions formerly practiced in and around the Penzance area and common to much of Cornwall at one point. Every year the main event, Montol eve 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.
Origin of the word Montol
Edward Lhuyd in his 1700 MSS. of vocabulary in the Cornish language states that "Montol" means Winter Solstice. However he later translates the word as " balance"(in Latin Trutina - a set of scales).
At the very core of the festival are several of the revived customs of the West Cornwall area including, predominantly Guise dancing the masked celebrations common to Cornwall in the 19th Century, the Cornish candle dance (Dons Cantol) in revived Cornish and the performance of traditional Guisers plays such as St George and the Turkish Knight or Buffy and the Bucca. Cornish Christmas carols also feature heavily during the festivities.
Historical basis for revived customs
The historical basis for many of the customs described above is taken from the texts of notable Cornish antiquarians. For example 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" and further noted that "everyone including the rich and the great came masked and disguised on to the streets".
A detailed description of the 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 the costume of the guise dancers often consisted of such antique finery as would now raise envy in the heart of a collector. The chief glory of the men lay in their cocked hats which were surmounted with plumes and decked with streamers and ribbons. The girls were no less magnificently attired with steeple crowned hats, stiff bodied gowns, bag skirts or trains and ruffles hanging from their elbows."||”|
The main event of the festival is Montol Eve on the 21st of December every year. During the evening large guisers processions can be seen through the town, carrying lanterns, wearing masks and traditional costumes. These processions are known as the "Rivers of Fire" Early in the evening a Lord of Misrule is chosen from among the masked revellers who leads the main processions and has certain honorary functions. Later on the appearance of the 'Montol Oss' occurs 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. In tradition this represents either the Christ Child or Old Father Time marking the death of the year,or the celebration of the birth of Christ "the light of the world". Some suggest that this very old Cornish imagery may have some connection to the sacrificial nature of the Roman Saturnalia the likelihood of this is open to question. A great deal of Cornish dance and music is performed during the evening often in an improvised and impromptu manner. The symbols of the festival are the spear and square of St Thomas, and the "Sun Resplendent", a traditional image used by Guise Dancers.
During the festival there are a series of workshops dedicated to the making of Lanterns which are used in a large lantern parade on 21 December in Penzance Town Centre followed by the lighting of a beacon at Lescudjack Hill Fort one of the most ancient sites in the Penzance parish. There are also arts events with the theme of light and darkness, disguise, topsy turvy and Cornish traditions.
- Amateur footage of the Montol Festival
- Origin of the word Montol from the Teer Ha Tavaz website (archived version)
- Website of the Montol festival
- Montol factfile from the Cornishman Newspaper
- Rivers of Fire at the Montol Festival in Penzance (Eyewitness account of the celebration)
- Teer Ha Tavas - Late/Modern Cornish Website Christmas special
- Edward Lhuyd: online transcript of 'Archaeologia Britannica'. National Library of Wales
- Simon Reed, The Cornish Traditional Year, Troy Books 2009