Penzance local community celebrates the last week in June with the strangely named Penzance Golowan Festival. The event is based on the ancient Feast of St John and celebrates midsummer with parades, rituals, music, arts and drama.
Penzance Golowan Festival revives an ancient tradition
Two centuries ago Golowan was a popular Midsummer Festival practiced throughout Cornwall, but Penzance is probably the last place to retain this cultural tradition. Originally tar barrels were set alight and paraded around the town. Bonfires were lit on the hillside as beacons and paraders carried burning torches through the streets of the town. As you can imagine, the ancient practice caused more than one fire in the town and eventually Golowan was outlawed in the 1890s.
Locals in Penzance decided to reintroduce the festival with some updated safety practices in 1991. It has grown to become one of the best community festivals in Cornwall, in my opinion. The town setting is wonderful and the huge masked figures in the local parade hark back to a time when Cornwall was a Celtic stronghold. Such traditions should be carefully guarded and continued to retain the interesting local heritage for future generations.
This family friendly festival always attracts a big attendance and has plenty of child-friendly activities. Each year there is a puppet show at the Acorn, often depicting a local story or Cornish legend, and there are certainly plenty of those! PuppetCraft has been performing shows and workshops throughout Britain for 23 years and is well worth seeing.
Throughout the week, the town has an ongoing programme of activities and events. There is an exciting fireworks display over the bay in place of burning tar barrels, parades through the streets, live entertainment and the curiously named Mazey Day, 28 June.
Celebrate Midsummer with the Obby Oss, fireworks and the Snake Dance
Midsummer’s Day, June 24th is also known as the Feast of St John. On the eve of St John’s Day, the local ‘Obby ‘Oss known as Penglaz makes his appearance on the streets of Penzance. It is traditional for everyone to join in the Snake Dance, similar to the Conga, and dance in a line through the streets of the town.
Mazey Day takes place on the final Saturday of the Golowan Festival and is based on an ancient custom, probably dating back to pagan times. The streets are decorated with greenery, banners and flags. School children and locals dress up in costumes and parade through the streets with huge sculptures and models of ships, pirates and giant fish
As part of the day’s celebrations, the Mock Mayor Elections take place to choose a local dignitary to be honorary mayor for the day, along with the real mayor of course. The day attracts tens of thousands of merrymakers, so go early to get a suitable parking spot or use the special festival train that is laid on to bring visitors to the town.
Quay Fair Day in Penzance
The day after Mazey Day is Quay Fair Day around Penzance Harbour. The local Golowan Band entertains with live music and the Quay Fair is a great place to buy food, arts and crafts, Venetian masks, local venison and tasty local food from the stalls.
Golowan Maritime Festival takes place as part of the week of festivities. On the final weekend, Penzance harbour is filled with traditional luggers, gaffers, ketches, crabbers and toshers – all worth a closer look!
In 2011, the Penzance Golowan Festival found its way into the Guinness Book of Records. It had 8,734 people dressed as pirates who gathered on the seafront to become the largest number of pirates in one place at the same time.
How well do you know Penzance? Are you one of the tens of thousands that join in the Golowan Festival? We’d love to hear about this or any other Cornish customs that celebrate Midsummer’s Day. Please feel free to add your comments below.