Poetry, piskies and fish head pie: Cornwall's alternative A-Z of Christmas

Hunderds of people took to the sea for the annual Christmas dip in Sennen Cornwall

The annual Christmas day swim at Sennen - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Get into the seasonal spirit with our run down of fables, tall tales and traditions for your perfect Cornish Christmas. 

A is for Advent 
Up first is the run up to Christmas. This year Advent begins 28 November and runs to 24 December - when the 12 days of Christmas happily extends the celebration period. The word - which comes from the Latin adventus meaning coming - is when the festivities begin.

Among them is the trees, lighting of candles and, of course, the advent calendar. In liturgy there is also daily prayer in preparation of the birth of Christ.

Truro Cathedral is famous for its celebration of advent with special services throughout the period. This year the cathedral is also home to artisans with its Made in Cornwall fair during designed to showcase locally made arts and crafts. 

Truro Cathedral at night, Cornwall England UK

Truro Cathedral - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

B ia for bledhen nowydh (new year)  
Fast forward past Christmas and find yourself on one of the UK’s best New Year parties (but watch your step).  Nevermind the little black dress and start planning your outfit for one of the UK’s most famous New Year’s Eve street parties. The harbour of St Ives fills up with marvellous creations as far as the eye can see. After a year’s absence 2021 is likely to be a big event. 
C is for Carols  
Not Cornwall’s editor, but the more musical variety; the Sans Day Carol is also known as St Day Carol and The Holly Bears a Berry, is named after the Cornish village of St Day. 
Featured in the Oxford Book of Carols, it is closely related to the more famous carol The Holly and the Ivy. First recorded in the early 1900s. Its most common lyrics are: 
1. Now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk, 
And Mary she bore Jesus, who was wrapped up in silk: 
Chorus: And Mary she bore Jesus our Saviour for to be, 
And the first tree that's in the greenwood, it was the holly. 
Holly! Holly! 
And the first tree that's in the greenwood, it was the holly! 
2. Now the holly bears a berry as green as the grass, 
And Mary she bore Jesus, who died on the cross: 
3. Now the holly bears a berry as black as the coal, 
And Mary she bore Jesus, who died for us all: 
4. Now the holly bears a berry, as blood is it red, 
Then trust we our Saviour, who rose from the dead: 

Cotehele flower garland at christmas

Flowers drying in the attic at Cotehele - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

D is for Decorations  
Forget the tinsels and baubles – and head to Cotehele to enjoy its traditional 60ft long flower garland created from flowers collected from across the National Trust estate and dried over the autumn. Depending on the season the number of flowers included can exceed 40,000 flowers.  The giant garland adorns the Tudor hall throughout December. 

Santa run around Eden Project

Santas of all ages join the freestyle run at Eden - Credit: Copyright Tim Linter @ Splinter Photographic

E is for Eden    

Explore the famous biomes and its outdoor gardens in you Santa suit as the UK’s most famous gardens play host to the 2km Santa fun run – raising vital funds for the South West Hospice. Sign up at edenproject.com
F for Fish heads 
Mousehole is Cornwall’s Christmas Capital. Its famous Christmas harbour lights combine with the story of Tom Bawcock and his famous Stargazy Pie which legend has it fed the starving villagers on Christmas Eve.  

Tom Bawcock went out to fish in a severe storm. During this festival Stargazy pie (a mixed fish, egg and potato pie with protruding fish heads). 

Stargazy pie has fish heads on show

Stargazy Pie - Credit: James Strawbridge for MSC

G for   Gin and cake 
Forget the mulled wine and mince pie and indulge in a spot of Cornish hospitality with a glass of gin and a slice of cake.

This tradition was one of the earliest customer loyalty scheme: shop owners would give their lower class customers gin and cake as a thank them for buying their Christmas goods there. Unlike the crystal-clear boutique gins that are likely to find their way under our Christmas trees this year, the gin served would be mahogany; a traditional Cornish drink made from two parts gin and one-part black treacle. Cheers.    

H is for Helicopter 
Nevermind the chimney – Santa takes a different mode of transport in Cornwall. If it’s not RNAS Culdrose dropping by on a helicopter, he can be found arriving by boat in a number of harbours. 

I is for the Isles of Scilly 
This subtropical archipelago sits 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall and offers its own Christmas – with air temperatures averaging around 11 degrees in December, you can celebrate the festive season on the beach. 
J is for Jingle bells   
Cornwall has its own version of the famous song – Cornish Christmas Bells, so warm your lungs and get practicing. Its first two lines are:

O merry ring the Christmas bells across the western land,
From Launceston Town to Michael's Mount, from Bude to Sennen sand,

The song goes on to name check around 20 places in Cornwall, from Lizard Point to Liskeard, and Looe to Tintagel.

K is for Kissing Bush  
The Christmas wreath has a Cornish twist known as the Kissing Bush. The bush is made out of a weave of mistletoe, holly and ivy. It also features a crown of apples in its middle and is topped with a candle.

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The candle is lit just before midnight on 20 December and it is customary to dance under it when you light it (and perhaps a snog). 

Mousehole harbour Christmas lights in Cornwall

Mousehole harbour lights - Credit: Shutterstock

L is for lights and Lanterns  
Although Truro’s famous City of Lights festival was missing in this month’s winter calendar, there are plenty of traditional Christmas lights and lantern parades and there is something about a harbour all lit up with colourful and themed lights in the run up to the holiday season. Mousehole harbour has one of the most famous light shows, but Padstow, Fowey and St Ives are well worth a look. Inland The Lost Gardens of Heligan has its own lights festival. 
M is for Mufti 
Yes, you read that right. Cornwall has its own traditional games and among them is Thus Says the Grand Mufti. A bit like Simon Says, the main difference is that the nominated person (carefully) stands on a chair and performs the action. Before each action he/she wants the others to follow, they say ‘Thus says the grand mufti...’    
N is for Nadelik Lowen!  
Offer a proper seasonal greeting in Cornish. Here’s five to get you started:   
Happy Christmas  Nadelik Lowen   
Happy New year Bledhen nowydh da!  
Gorhemynadow a'n Seson Season's Greetings  
Tas Nadelik Father Christmas  
And of course: Yma champagne y’n yeynell (the Champagne is in the fridge) 
O is for ‘Obby ‘Ossses 
This Cornish version of the hobby horse is one of the stars of the Montol solstice festival in Penzance on the day of the feast of St Thomas and the shortest day (and winter solstice). The Montol Festival is celebrated each year with  fire breathers, guisers and musicians, Christmas carol singers, choirs, markets and Geeze Dancers. A Lord of misrule is also chosen to oversee the festivities.  

Delicious homemade Cornish pasties with beef, carrot, and potato.

Add your Christmas leftovers to your pasty - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

P is for Pasties  
At Christmas it is time to leave behind the traditional recipe and pack your Christmas lunch into the famous shortcrust pastry case The Cornish Hamper Store offers a festive treat for pasty lovers by post. Their offerings include a turkey, bacon, sausage, stuffing and cranberry sauce pasty. Have a go at your Christmas dinner leftovers. A word of caution: leave out the Brussel sprouts.. 
Q is for queues

Or should that be avoiding the queues? Cornwall's towns are adept at offering incredible fairs and festivals for buying local produce and crafts. Show you car by heading to your nearest town for its annue Christmas fair

Reindeer on the beach in cornwall

Lowen the reindeer featured on Cornwall Life's December 2020 cover - Credit: Feadon Wildlife Centre

R  is for Rescued reindeer

Feadon Wildlife Centre near Porthreath is filled with rescued animals (among them two friendly foxes who will eat from your hand). 

Its reindeer brothers - Nadelik and Lowen were the cover stars of Cornwall Life's December 2020 issue and were also favourites at the centre where they had lived for a decade. Sadly Lowen died just after Christmas last year and the centre is looking for a new friend for Nadelik.

S is for the Solomone Browne  
December marks the 40th anniversary of the loss of the RNLI lifeboat Solomone Brown and its eight crew out of Penlee Lifeboat Station.

The lifeboat answered a distress call on 19 December, from a stricken coaster. But after rescuing several passengers, the boat and its crew were lost. The event is marked on the night by the lowering of Mousehole’s harbour lights on the date.


RNLI lifeboat disaster in Mousehole cornwall

The plaque marking the loss of the Solomone Brown on 19 December 1981 - Credit: Ewen MacDonald

T is for Tree festivals 
If one Christmas tree feels a bit too subtle, satiate your appetite for Christmas spruce with a visit to one of Cornwall’s Christmas Tree Festivals. Often hosted by the parish church - the festivals are very much community events, bringing people together by each decorating a Christmas tree which are then displayed together, often in the local church. Keep an eye out on your local parish notices. 

Whichever you choose, they are unlikely to reflect the debauchery witnessed in 1989’s Treworgey Tree Fayre, which attracted 40,000 people and led to 300 arrests after it turned into a rave. 
U is for Underground 
While miners were put in daily peril searching out tin in Cornwall’s network of mines, these subterranean worlds took on another shade at Christmas. On Christmas eve, spriggans, would meet at the bottom of the deepest mines and have midnight mass and legend has it that passers-by could hear them singing.  

A spriggan is a legendary creature, known for their love of making mischief and sometimes evil acts – which included swapping mortal children for their own offspring. But don’t be afraid – turning your clothes inside out is said to protect you from their wrongdoing. 

V is for verse     

Poet laureate Sir John Betjeman made Cornwall his home: he now lies buried St Enodoc Church in Trebetherick, itself famed for once being buried in sand forcing parishioners to ascend through a hole in the roof. HIs famous poem entitled Christmas is oft-recited at this time of year. 

Hunderds of people took to the sea for the annual Christmas dip in Sennen Cornwall

The annual Christmas day swim at Sennen - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

W is for Water 
You are never more than 16 miles from the sea in Cornwall – so it unsurprising that water should play such a big part in Cornwall’s festive celebrations. Grab your swimsuit and a Santa hat and head down to one of your local beaches for a bracing dip in the sea.

Despite the winter water temperatures of around 10 degrees, the swim takes place sans wetsuit. Feel the Christmas spirit and get yourself sponsored to raise money for charity. Proving so popular, you can find swims at your local beaches on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Bring along friends and family to cheer you on and hold your towel (a flask of hot chocolate or similar is recommended). 

Christmas lights at Charlestown Shipwreck Museum in Cornwall

Charlestown Shipwreck Museum lights up its secret tunnels - Credit: Charlestown Shipwreck Museum l

X marks the spot 
Alongside the changelings, piskies and spriggans, Cornwall is famed for its pirate population. Harbours and pubs along the harbours often still have tunnels where pirates could hide their bounty. Charlestown’s Shipwreck Museum has made its secret tunnels part of Christmas celebrations, lit up with thousands of twinkly lights.

This year artists are creating a polar inspired world within the passageways. 
Y is for Yule Log    

Not the chocolate one pulled out for pudding, this one is traditionally made of less tasty ash wood. A stick person is drawn onto the log before it is set on fire.  
Z is for Zennor  
Not the mermaids, but home to a famous Christmas pudding ice cream created by Moomaids of Zennor. The moomaids are land-based dairy cows who produce the main ingredient to the icecream created on Tremedda Farm.