Cornwall LivingIssue #129

There’s magic in the air

Come with us as we seek out the sparkle of a Cornish Christmas.

With a chill in the air and the light growing dim as the evenings get shorter, it’s hard to ignore the glittering promise of Christmas as it peaks over the horizon. In towns and villages all around the frosted coasts of Cornwall, preparations are well underway for the upcoming festivities, and with unique traditions and celebrations upheld throughout the county, you’re in for something rather special if Cornwall is the setting for your yuletide revelries.

One way you might find yourself whisked away into the festive spirit this season is with a visit to The Lost Gardens of Heligan. There is magic to be found amongst the trees, as there is all year round, but this winter the Heligan Night Garden offers an immersion into an enchanting lantern experience, set amidst the atmospheric natural setting of the gardens. Journey through the magical garden trail, exploring woodlands and gardens beautifully lit with installations and lanterns. Discover breath-taking displays of fauna and flora in celebration of the characters of nature’s community, all illuminated within Heligan’s much-loved and iconic locations. 

The Lantern Company’s illuminated installations at Heligan holds up a nocturnal magnifying glass to the often-overlooked wonders and beauty of the nature on our doorstep. From badgers to fungi, bees to butterflies, and a joyful family of cheeky Tamworth pigs, this illuminated seasonal trail creates a treasure-filled space for families and friends to discover these beautiful indigenous species. What’s more, the team at Heligan are offering children the chance to make their own lanterns so that they might lead their families through the gardens on this most magical of winter evenings. With additional dates and fresh installations included for 2022, not to mention a new night-time route to be explored together with friends and family, you can follow an extended one-mile journey around the gardens, discovering nature in a celebration of the wildlife that make Heligan their home all year round. Explore at your own pace, stop to take in the smells, toast marshmallows by the stunning fire bowls, experience the glittering oak trees, and enjoy seasonal warming refreshments and meals amid a truly festive backdrop for your winter’s evening.

Any winter stay down here in the Duchy would not be complete without a visit to a local town or village that will undoubtedly be celebrating the arrival of the festive season in its own way. At the top of the pile with a light display that draws people from all over the county every year in December, the Mousehole Harbour Christmas Lights switch on is a truly unmissable event. Now a treasured tradition that goes back to the 1960s, when local artist Joan Gillchrest strung coloured bulbs along both quays of the harbours to brighten up the village at Christmas time, the Mousehole lights have come a long way. Taking weird and wonderful forms, the lights depict more than the usual festive symbols; a serpent and a whale can be seen almost floating above the glittering tide, while a stargazy pie shines against the harbour wall. Once more the village will begin the staggered switch-on on the 12th December, with all lights shining bright by the 17th, so you’re sure to catch the event!

If you’re in the area for the festive season and find yourself longing to return to Mousehole, Tom Bawcock’s Eve on the 23rd December is certainly one for the diary. Reminiscent of an old local tale, it is said that the residents of the fishing village were starved during a stormy winter, when eventually fisherman Tom Bawcock set out into the waves, returning with a bountiful haul and saving the village. From then on, in his honour, stargazy pie has been cooked and eaten on this day. Pubs come alive with warm fires and live music draws anyone wandering the streets inside as locals celebrate with an evening of fun in gratitude for the food on their plates, and for men like Tom Bawcock.

If age-old tradition and old Cornish folklore tickles your fancy during your winter visit to a place rich in history, and you’re within reach of the Penzance area, The Montol Festival is not something you’ll want to miss. Run by the Cornish Culture Association, this six-day arts and community festival celebrates the midwinter solstice, Cornish midwinter traditions of the past, and customs associated with Old Christmas, all culminating in Montol Eve on the 21st December.

Through the week there are a host of activities; lantern and mask-making workshops, strolling bands, carol services, and, of course, late night shopping! During the main event on December 21st, the people of Penzance take part in many of the traditional Cornish customs of Midwinter and Christmas, including Guise dancing with traditional masks and ‘mock formal’ costumes. Several fire beacons are lit throughout the town, leading up to the chalking and burning of the Cornish Yule log and the dancing that follows. With a theme of ‘light and darkness’, everyone is encouraged to unite on the longest night of the year in defeating the darkness and celebrating the annual return of the light.

Whilst December may bring with it nights that can feel endlessly dark, and frosty days to nip your nose and encourage hibernation, there is also a sort of magic that only comes along at this time of year. You might see it in the glint of a bauble, or the shine of twinkling lights strung over heads in woolly hats, or perhaps in the smiles of those around you, come together to celebrate something special and unique. Wherever it comes from, you’re sure to find magic in Cornwall this Christmas, if you only know where you look…