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Traditions of a Cornish Christmas

‘As our little periodical reaches the homes of our readers, the sounds of Christmas preparations will be predominant. It is not easy to make the festive season an old fashioned one. We go so fast now, what with our electric telegraph, our telephonic connection, our steam, we cannot, if we would be quite to awfully old fashioned. Still we try our best. We hang the mistletoe and decorate our houses with the holly, the fir, myrtle, laurel etc and sit before and around the biggest fire we can manage on our hearths and while toasting our toes we toast each other and wish present and absent friends – A MERRY CHRISTMAS. – Pendennis.’
(The Falmouth & Penryn Weekly Times – 25th December 1880)

Imagine how old Cornwall would manage a traditional Christmas in today’s, ‘superfast’, towns and villages! So, on that note we thought we would give you some ideas of an Old Cornwall Christmas that you may like to include in yours.

The Cornish Bush

Originally the construction of the, Cornish Bush, was part of a pagan ritual during the winter solstice. As Christianity grew the process of creating the bush and it’s meanings adapted. Today it represents new life and is traditionally hung indoors on the 20th of December.

The 3 dimensional round wreath style bush is traditionally made with withy’s, holy, ivy and mistletoe. Shape two circles out of withy, (or wire if you prefer), and pass one circle through the centre of the other to create the 3d shape. Then decorate with the holy and ivy and  add an apple in the centre at the top, the mistletoe is hung from the bottom. Finally a candle, (usually red), is securely added to the centre of the bush that is then suspended from the ceiling.

On the 20th of December just before midnight light the candle and dance under the bush in a circle to welcome in the God of Light.

Long before Christianity the 21st of December was celebrated as the rebirth of the child of the sun and through the love of the Gods new life is born. A, ‘Yule’, log or, ‘Block’, as it is called here in Cornwall may be thrown on to an open fire. During this tradition Cornish bards would call everyone together to tell stories. The light of the fire came to represent the light of the saviour as Christianity grew.

Gin & Cake

visit_falmouth_cake_gin_traditionQuite when this tradition ended I am yet to find out and perhaps any local traders who read this may wish to reinstate it! But……

This Falmouth tradition saw the lower classes receive gifts of Gin and cake from traders after purchasing their Christmas goods. I wonder how many of them made it back up Jacob’s Ladder with their shopping after.


During the nineteenth Century card games were the most popular form of entertainment. Looking at some of Falmouth’s older pubs and houses it isn’t hard to imagine back to groups of people young and old sitting by candlelight around a roaring fire enjoying an animated round or two of cards.


‘Swabbers’, a variation of, ‘Whist‘, (click on the link to see the rules for Whist), was played over the festive season and was a particular favourite 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.

Another favourite game to play is, ‘Thus Says the Grand Mufti’. The chosen Grand Mufti stands on a chair and performs an action. She/he then chooses to say, ‘Thus Says the Grand Mufti’, or, ‘So Says the Grand Mufti’.  Everyone must do as the Grand Mufti says but ONLY if they say, ‘Thus Say’s the Grand Mufti.’ Anyone who moves when, ‘So say’s the Grand Mufti,’ is called must pay a forfeit.

The Sans Day Carol  – a familiar Cornish Carol



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3 Responses to Traditions of a Cornish Christmas

  1. Shaun Davie says:

    Gin and Cake is certainly a tradition I like to keep in my household. !
    Thank you Pip for all your interesting stories over the past year, be it legends or factual articles, they are always inspiring.
    A Happy Christmas to you and your family.

    • Pip Carlton-Barnes says:

      I am so glad you like them! I must find you more. Thank you Shaun and all the very best to you all for 2014.

  2. Jayne says:

    I am loving the gin & cake idea!

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