The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions. For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing. As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet. To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.
Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain
Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall. According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea. This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.
Brave Tom Bawcock
According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done. Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him. He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish. When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.
By Krista – Baked stargazy pie – CC BY 2.0
These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village. They called the dish stargazy pie. In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water. Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.
Tom Bawcock’s Eve
Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten. But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.
The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain
There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.
The origin of Tom Bawcock
There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated. One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.
Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man. So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village. It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.
The Devil in a Pie!
There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall. According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies. Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back before they decided to place him in one!
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