A Traditional Cornish Christmas by Katherine Bone!

Gorhemnadow a’n Seson or Season’s Greetings, me hearties!

reindeerKatherine here to explore Christmas in late 18th Century and early 19th Century Cornwall where Yuletide revelry lasted long after the rest of England considered particular traditions passé. But survive these customs did and they are still being celebrated today.

The world owes Cornwall a debt of gratitude when it comes to one favorite holiday pastime: caroling. Well-known Christmas Carols found their origins among the Cornish people, especially Thomas Merritt’s earthy compositions in the late 19th Century.


c62ed2d78260c4355bd69710c23f6628So how did 18th and 19th Century Cornish people celebrate Christmas?

  • Cornish Bush or Christmas Bunch hung indoors. Before midnight on December 20th, candles are lit and dancing is done in a circle beneath the bush to usher in the God of Light.
  • Traditional pomanders
  • Arches of evergreens and flags hoisted high in hamlets and coves.
  • Guise-dancing: Masks, veils, make up and costumes were used to disguise individuals while a ‘Lord of Misrule’, master of ceremonies, leads a parade of revelers through the streets.
  • Lighting and Chalking the Block, a tradition of drawing a chalk man on the yule log, symbolizing the death of the old year and the birth of the new, still performed at the Montol Festival in Penzance.
  • Cornish plays presented by ‘mummers’.
  • Card Games like Swabbers. According to Traditions of a Cornish Christmas this card game is a variation of Whist “played over the festive season and was a particular favorite among groups of older ladies. The ‘Swabbers’, are the four aces used for betting this bet is placed at the start of the game. If the trump card pulled is a heart then the stakes are doubled.”
  • Fireside folk tales like The Giants of St. Michael’s Mount, The Pixy’s Potion, and Morwenna the Merrymaid told by ‘droll tellers’ or bards.
  • Carol derives from corole, circular dance, and traditional songs like Dancing Day or Sans Day Carol were original dance tunes.
  • Twelfth Cake, a feast celebrated on the twelfth night.
  • Candle dancing around baskets full of sand filled with colorful candles and lit after dark on Christmas Eve.
  • Singing Cornish Christmas Carols such as The First Noel and While Shepherds Watch to a tune called ‘Lingam’.
  • Boxing Day, or St. Stephan’s Day, celebrated the day after Christmas.
  • Childermass on December 28th to honor the Massacre of Holy Innocents. Cornish people avoid anything new on this day, whether it’s a journey or project because anything new is seen as bad luck.

mulled-wineHoliday feasts consisted of platters laden with pasties, puddings, and mince pies (cooked square instead of round, symbolizing the manger) and marzipan delights. Mulled wine, posset, and syllabub were also served.posset

I hope you enjoyed stepping back in time to see how the characters from my Nelson’s Tea Series and Regent’s Revenge Series would celebrate Christmas in Cornwall in the late 18th Century and early 19th Centuries.


Make way for Father Christmas!


Wishing you a Nadelik Lowen or Happy Christmas!








8 Responses

  1. iamshortanote

    Thank you Captain. I enjoyed your article. Interesting and the traditions, many of which, I hadn’t heard before. Merry Christmas and a grand holiday season. Melody

  2. Amy Valentini

    Thank you for taking us back in time to an obviously simple, and possibly more interesting Christmas celebration, Cap’n Katherine. If only time travel were possible, wouldn’t it be exciting to visit? Merry Christmas! xo

    • dholcomb1

      It appears the Philadelphia Mummers descended, in a roundabout way, from similar practices…a lot of derivation over time compared to what it is now.