St John's Eve, or Midsummers Eve, happens every year on 23rd June. Across Cornwall, the event is celebrated by lighting bonfires on hilltops. The most westerly bonfire is lit on Chapel Carn Brea near Land’s End and the most easterly is on Kit Hill, near the border with Devon.

Old Cornwall Society bonfire at Beacon Crag near Porthleven in 1994
Old Cornwall Society bonfire at Beacon Crag, near Porthleven in 1994 Reproduced courtesy of Paul Yockney as featured on cornishmemory.com
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These bonfires are mostly organised by the Old Cornwall Societies, which are groups that celebrate Cornish culture and traditions. The societies have created a special ceremony in Cornish and English for the occasion and midsummer flowers and herbs are thrown on the bonfire. The fire is lit just as the sun goes down (around 9.30pm) by the Lady of the Flowers, who is specially chosen to take part in the ceremony. 

Midsummer bonfire on Carn Brea in the 1950s
Midsummer bonfire on Carn Brea in the 1950s
Reproduced courtesy of Paddy Bradley as featured on cornishmemory.com

In the past these bonfires celebrated St John the Baptist’s day and were very common indeed, being lit everywhere in Cornwall, not just on the high hills. The Cornish language word for Midsummer is Golowan, which means festival of light and happiness. On the 23rd of June in Penzance a special torchlit procession takes place, led by the Golowan band and an “'Oss” called Penglaz. Penglaz is actually a horse skull on a pole, carried by a dancer covered over by a black cloth. The dancer can make the skull’s mouth snap and bite, and the “'Oss” dances in and out of the crowd and band.



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