Today at Mousehole people celebrate Tom Bawcock’s Eve. Children parade, paper lanterns aloft. Traditional songs such as ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ are sung, starry-gazy pie will be eaten. This age-old festival has its roots extending deep into the past. But how deep?
The event is said to commemorate the actions of Tom Bawcock, a fisherman who set out during a severe storm just before Christmas. This storm was the latest in a series so bad that Mousehole’s fishing fleet had not ventured to sea for weeks. In consequence the folk of Mousehole faced starvation.
But Tom was their saviour. Braving the gale and, in the latest iteration of the tale (The Mousehole Cat of 1990) with the help of his cat who soothed the tempest, Tom brought home a boatload of ‘seven sorts of fish’. These were promptly baked into a giant starry-gazy pie and the community saved from a hungry Christmas.
As Alan Kent points out in the most comprehensive account of this festival (The Festivals of Cornwall, 2018, pp.323-325), Tom Bawcock’s Eve underwent several revivals or revisions during the twentieth century. The first reference to it was from Robert Morton Nance, the Cornish Celtic revivalist, in 1927. Nance wrote that ‘at Mousehole this is the eve before Christmas Eve, which was formerly kept as a feast among the fisher-folk there’. This has been widely taken to mean that the festivity was still being kept up in the early 1900s. But the word ‘formerly’ would seem to add some ambiguity to that conclusion.
It’s not clear whether Nance observed such a festivity or not. He was not averse to reconstructing or re-inventing aspects of Cornish culture, as he did with the Cornish language. It was in fact Nance who wrote the song ‘Tom Bawcock’s Eve’ around 1910, a song he himself described as a ‘conjectural description’ of what might have been sung in possible earlier feasts.
Various theories swirl around the origins of the tale. Some assert that it was a product of the staunch Methodism of Mousehole, with Tom Bawcock acting as the shining exemplar of selfless commitment to community values. This would date it to the later 1700s or 1800s. Others, including Nance, suggest an older origin in pre-Christian times.
Anyone seeking an actual person called Tom Bawcock will be disappointed. Bawcock is not a local surname. The word was used by Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, The Winter’s Tale and Henry V, and was a generic term for a fine fellow, an anglicised version of the French beau coq. Tom Bawcock was the perfect moniker for this local hero. Based on the Shakespearian provenance of bawcock some claim that the tale therefore dates from the 1600s. However, as the word was used by another playwright as late as the 1850s, it could imply a date anywhere between 1600 and the late 1800s.
While the precise origins of the tale, one that no doubt shifted in its telling, remains obscure, it’s likely that Tom Bawcock’s Eve emerged as a local variant of widespread pre-modern mid-winter celebrations, of which Christmas is of course one. In mid-Cornwall there was Picrous day, held by the tinners of the Blackmore Stannary on the second Thursday before Christmas. Other miners took a holiday on Chiwidden Thursday, the last Thursday before Christmas.
It may also be significant, certainly interesting, to read that there’s a traditional Christmas eve feast among Italian-American households called the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Were there seven sorts of fish traditionally, or did Nance, aware of the significance of the number seven in the Bible as a sign of completion or fulfilment, add this element as well as the song?
But at the end of the day who cares? As Alan Kent writes, ‘origins do not matter, only the event matters.’