Cornish Folk Tradition: Songs Music Dance and Associated Customs
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Tansys Golowan - Cornish Midsummer Bonfire Ceremonies

 

 

Tansys Golowan

On the evening of midsummers day ninety years ago a great chain of bonfires was lit along the spine of Cornwall from Carrak Zans, near St Just to Kit Hill on the Cornish Border. These fires were organised by the Old Cornwall Societies and marked the revival of an ancient custom, Tansys Golowan, the Cornish midsummer bonfire ceremony.  They also stood for the successful rekindling of the Celtic spirit of Cornwall and confidence in Cornish identity which had taken a serious knock following the collapse of the mining industry at beginning of the twentieth century.   

Midsummer was an important date for Cornish miners and celebrated as much as St Piran’s Day and Christmas. Festivities took place in the days following the summer solstice in June much as they did for Christmas after the winter solstice in December. In midsummer anarchy reigned in the towns and villages as lighted tar barrels were rolled through the streets and people swung large flaming torches over their heads. These were made from sheets of canvas dipped in tar and fixed to long poles or chains. Once alight they were hot and smoky and required great dexterity if the bearer was not to get burnt.

Bonfires were lit on the cairns and hilltops dotted around the countryside and sparkled like fireflies in the darkness. Here it was mysticism and magic that reigned. The fires were lit at dusk in succession from the west as each earlier bonfire was spotted. The number of bonfires visible were counted as a portend for the future. Later, as the flames subsided, people would leap over the bonfire to protect themselves from evil. Revellers danced hand in hand in a circle around the fire singing “wild native songs” and dancers pulled each other through the embers. If the dancers succeeded in putting the embers out this would bring health and a good harvest in the weeks to come. It was important not to break the chain on the dance as this would bring bad luck.   

Health and safety considerations had discouraged pyrotechnics in the towns by the end of the nineteenth century and by the first decade of the twentieth there were but a few fires to be seen on the hilltops. The night sky of 1929 was not so well lit as it would be today and the sight of these bonfires being lit again across the Cornish landscape would have been quite spectacular.  

The ceremonies of the Cornish Midsummer Bonfires continue to be part of the charm of modern Cornwall today. Hill top locations provide an aerial view of the landscape, sometimes against the multi-hued dome of the sky as sun sets and sometimes braced by the vicissitudes of Cornish weather. The ceremony itself connects us with the magic of the season’s change as the bonfire is lit and herbs are cast upon it to ensure the success of the coming harvest. As the sky darkens the singing around the fire instils a timeless sense of community that connects us with the generations that have stood here before us as well as the present company and those that will succeed us. Kernow Bys Vykken!

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An Daras, doorway in Cornish, is an outreach project of Lowender Peran, Cornwall’s Celtic festival, and provides a portal to the distinctive traditions of Cornwall . The links on the site map will take you to the tunes, songs, dances and associated traditions of Cornwall. There are also links to teaching materials and further research work and publications on Cornish Folk Tradition.

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