In the Cornish language, Golowan (or Goluan or Gol-Jowan) means the Feast of St John and it is on St John’s eve, the 23rd of June, that the festivities begin for this revived tradition in Penzance. (The patron saint of the town, the town hall is named for him and in the 1940s the local police button showed the Saint’s severed head on a plate.)
It is a midsummer solstice celebration by any other name, and bonfire celebrations have been held at this time of year since pre-Christian times. Less pagan celebrations were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries and would fill the days up until St Peter’s eve on the 28th of June. However, fearing danger and damage to property from what had become the standard antics of the festival – namely an abundance of torches, blazing barrels rolled down streets and bonfires reminiscent of Beltane – by-laws were passed to limit the fun and, although it took the best part of half a century, Golowan died out.
Fortunately, in 1990, Golowan was reborn in Penzance thanks to a passionate group of local people. Many of the traditional ingredients of the event were revived, including a Serpent Dance, Mock Mayor elections, fireworks and a quayside fair, and it has become a vibrant community festival which draws everyone out of their homes and flocks of people from outside the town. Colourful flags and handmade banners adorn the streets and seafront, and the whole town takes on a bright hue for the duration.
Everything commences on the eve of St John (or the nearest Friday) with the Serpent Dance, when Penglaz, a fertility figure represented by a dancing horse’s skull, leads a throng of townsfolk through the moonlit streets of the town to the traditional Golowan tune played by the festival band. Torches aloft, the parade eventually arrives at the sea where a display of fireworks marks the beginning of the festivities. Also on the Friday night, a Mock Mayor, or Mayor of the Quay, is elected in a furore of ridiculous promises made by each candidate to a raucous crowd.
The following day, the Saturday, is Mazey Day. Traffic is banished for the day, stalls line the pavements, punctuated by a variety of street acts, and the main thoroughfare is bedecked with greenery gathered that very morning. The highlight of the day is the series of colourful processions which move through the town, the most impressive of which includes children from every primary school in the area. These young Penwithians spend months working with teachers and local artists to produce themed costumes and an array of spectacular giant effigies which they parade alongside through the crowds of onlookers.
The Sunday’s festivities are a more mellow affair, with a multitude of stalls lining the quayside selling crafts, clothes and interesting foods.
The whole weekend is also peppered with a range of musical performances, many with a Celtic feel, and there is always a contingent of fellow Celts from France’s Breton community. Other styles of music and bands from all over the world are enjoyed throughout the day and the evenings.