Masked revellers marauding through the streets, fiery braziers, torch-lit mayhem, music and merriment and strange beasts… celebrating the winter solstice and the return of the light on the shortest day of the year, this is Montol. From its anarchic debut in 2007, Penzance’s midwinter festival has evolved into a truly unique event.
At its core is the revived folk practice of Guise dancing. Everyone is encouraged to wear masks and dress in the Guiser style of ‘mock posh’, topsy-turvy or tatters (think Morris dancing). Playing sombre tunes taken from the traditional Cornish canon in the processions, the Turkey Rhubarb Guise Band always look the menacing part.
Guising also involves hit-and-run performances of plays like St George and the Turkish Knight in the town’s pubs, and Cornish Carol singing. Hiding their identity originally allowed performers to be more outlandish and mischievous, increasing their chances of receiving payment of food or money. And it was a great leveller as everyone, rich or poor, came out onto the streets masked and in disguise.
This Montol will see the The Glorious Company of the Egyptian House, The Noble Company of the Turks Head, and the Ancient Company of the Corn-Market entertain and delight with their weird and whacky Guising throughout the town. Marvel at the The Turban of Beauty, and beware the Egyptian beast after dark.
Some other exciting additions to the event this year include a full programme of daytime street entertainment and stalls in Causewayhead from 11am – 5pm, while Chapel Street will be closed to traffic from 4pm, where music, dancing and a devilishly wild performance from Circo Inferno Fire Act will put you in the Montol mood. Too incendiary? Stroll down to St Mary’s Church for some celebratory and reflective Christmas music courtesy of the lovely and very talented Penzance Youth String Orchestra at 4.15pm (free with a retiring collection).
The main Rivers of Fire procession leaves from Chapel Street at 5.45pm. The honour of leading it is bestowed upon the Lord of Misrule. To be considered for this prestigious role, present yourself to the Master of Revels opposite the Turks Head at 5.30pm in Guise costume for the choosing ceremony. Re-routed to the Princess May Recreation Ground this year, a special ‘Sun Resplendent’ effigy will be burned to signify light in darkness, and reflect the ‘death’ and ‘rebirth’ of the sun.
Then it’s back to Chapel Street where The Ritz will be hosting a free family friendly event from 7pm, featuring live music from Bagas Crowd, Hevva, The Baguettes and storyteller John Brolly. Alternatively, join the Red River Singers at the Admiral Benbow for a Cornish Carol pub session or ‘Shout’ with a Montol twist.
The climax of the evening is the torch-lit procession and Chalking of the Mock. Here, a member of the public is chosen to draw a stick figure on a Cornish Yule log (the Mock) which is then hurled into a bonfire, followed by (yes, you guessed it) more dancing, music and revelry. This sacrificial element is believed to hark back to pagan times, possibly the Roman feast of Saturnalia. Prior to Cornwall’s conversion to Christianity, both midwinter and midsummer were widely celebrated – traditions the Penzance community has revived and reinterpreted with passion and flair.
If you’ve still got the energy, meet at the top of Chapel Street at 10.15pm and be swept along in the magic and mystery that define this event. Old Ned the Crow and his teaser, the Green Man, serpent dancing and Ramesses the Ram are worlds apart from Argos and M&S, tinsel and baubles. So come and experience this wild and anarchic dark night for yourself, a side to Cornwall you never knew was there.
Sunday December 21st, mask up and let the revels commence!
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