An article written by Lanson’s Town Crier Rob Tremain who is an Honoured Burgess of the Town. He is a real proper bloke and a proud Cornishman.
Bruno Peak’s dream of a “Beacon Millennium” with one million beacons being lit around the world, is to be part of the celebrations to greet the year 2000. He has already organised the “Armada 400” beacon chain in 1988 and “Beacon Europe” in 1992, so we look forward to his plans to commemorate the millennium and hope that Lanson will be involved looking to the future.
We can also look back to the ancient times……….from its movement, warmth and appearance, fire would have been regarded in the times long ago as a living thing, a spirit, a god! Fire was a holy thing, a deity to ancient man. The Celtic year originally had two seasons; summer commencing on 1st May and winter which began on 1st November. These two dates, known as Beltane and Samhain, were great times for Celtic Fire Festivals. Druids lit fires on May Day in honour of the god Bel, and on Midsummer’s Ever, just after the solstice, they celebrated the splendour of high summer with fire.
Sumhain seems to correspond with the Greek Chalceia, an ancient feast held on the last day of October in honour of Hephaestus, a fire god, and also with the great Egyptian Feast of the Dead, when the slaying of Osiris was commemorated.
The Celts, like other primitive peoples, reckoned their times by nights rather than by days and therefore attached more importance to the eve of the festival than to the festival itself. The Christian “All Saints” has taken the place of Samhain, but Samhain Eve is still celebrated as All Hallows Eve or Halloween.
In the early days, the church found itself faced with either suppressing these pagan festivals or adopting and adapting them for its own purposes. It generally chose the latter course, and the midsummer fire was lit to celebrate the Eve of St. John (Golowan, in the Cornish language). When Christianity was becoming the national religion, the people were so attached to their ancient beliefs that Canute prohibited his subjects from paying adoration to the sun, moon, sacred groves and woods, hallowed hills and fountains. Due perhaps to its remoteness, Cornwall preserved its old religious ceremonies far longer than most. Writing in 1845, Mr Edmonds from Penzance described the proceedings formerly held on Midsummer’s Eve.
“It is the immemorial usage in Penzance and neighbouring towns and villages to kindle bonfires and torches on Midsummer’s Eve, and on Midsummer’s Day to hold a fair on Penzance Quay.
In the early part of the evening, children may be seen wearing wreaths of flowers on their heads…………..great numbers of persons join hands and dance ‘thread the needle’ through the streets and boys jump through flames.”
The passing of children through fire was a very common act of idolatry and the old people believed that all living things submitted to this ordeal would be preserved from evil through the ensuing year. A small piece of charcoal, taken from the site of a bonfire on St. John’s night and sewed up in the clothes of a woman preserved her against fairy plots, or from abduction by the “good people”; whilst a live coal is considered to bring luck to the house in which it ignites the new fire on a family hearth.
Bonfires are lit throughout Cornwall on June 23rd by the Old Cornwall Societies in commemoration of these past times.
An area of Launceston is known as Windmill and the first mention of a windmill in the borough accounts is 1391, when the mill produced a rent of 3s.4d. It was here on Windmill that the fire beacon was situated. In 1460, 4d. was paid for two trusses of furze for “le vyre bekyn”, 1d. for carrying timber to it, and 2d. for “making the bekyn”.
Beacons were one of the earliest forms of communication. The Great Wall of China had a system of beacons along its length. The fall of Troy was signalled by beacons. In England beacons were used as a chain of warning signals the length of the country and have been lit in many an hour of danger of our island; the approach of the Spanish Armada being one well known example. Nowadays they are used for times of rejoicing and we were very pleased that Launceston Young Farmers’ Club saw fit to organise the fire beacon on Windmill in honour of V.E. Day. I was privileged as Town Crier to begin the ceremony. I spoke of the traditions of the bonfires and fire beacons and, after the two minute silence, spoke the words of Lawrence Binyon’s poem: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them”. Miss Michelle Parnell, Chairman of Launceston Y.F.C. then lit the fire.
As the sun began to set in the wet people were happy to remain by the fire remembering the events of the day, and of 50 years ago. It was not until the embers started to die down that the people began to make their way home.
Fire has also been a symbol of peace and power; we are reminded of the symbolism of fire on Whit Sunday when we celebrate the great Christian Feast of Pentecost. “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them: and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.”