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Tom Bawcock's Eve, Cornwall

The little fishing village of Mousehole is now famous throughout the English speaking world because of the children’s book The Mousehole Cat written by Antonia Barber, later made into an animated film. Like so many of Britain’s customs and legends, the origin of Tom Bawcock’s Eve in Mousehole is far from clear, and Barber’s charming retelling of the story is just one of many versions.
On the night before Christmas Eve Mousehole regularly has a lantern procession, and in the Ship Inn Stargazey pie is served, a dish made with potatoes, egg, and whole pilchards whose heads poke through the top, hence the name. Others have a more elaborate fish feast, with traditionally seven dishes of different fish served.
The romantic version of the legend has the ageing but fearless fisherman Tom Bawcock, a widower with little to lose, saving the starving village where bad weather has prevented the fishing boats from venturing out for weeks. Depending on the storyteller he is accompanied by a crew he persuades to brave the storms, his faithful cat, or both. Tom’s boat returns with a magnificent catch, seven types of fish, and the famine is broken.
More academic minds have seen in the occasion a survival of some pagan celebration of the winter solstice, and the promise of new light and plentiful food to come. Bawcock has certainly been used in English as a general term for a bold adventurer, but some interpret it in this case as Beau cock, the animal crowing as the new light approaches.
Whatever the meaning, in the beautiful village of Mousehole December 23 is a fine night of celebration, with stout in great demand. The Christmas lights in the village are a wonderful sight too, drawing visitors from far and wide. Four days before Tom Bawcock’s Eve another event is commemorated by these lights being extinguished, in memory of the local Penlee lifeboat which sank in 1981 with the loss of all hands, the contrast of the sea’s harm and harvest recalled in stark symmetry just a few days apart.

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